Although many organizations seek to involve younger volunteers, many struggle with engaging and integrating youth and young adults into their volunteer workforces. In order to become truly intergenerational, nonprofits need to view youth as assets with lived experience that have unique strategic value to their efforts, rather than simply a way to “diversify.”
They also need to recognize that youth have developmental and practical needs that are different from their adult counterparts. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, youth volunteering is, on average, lower than for other age groups. 21.8 percent of those ages 16 to 24 volunteer, while he average is 24,9 percent for all ages 16 and over. Perhaps the most elusive volunteers are those age 20 to 24 years old, who volunteer at a rate of 18.4 percent, the lowest for all age groups. It makes sense for youth volunteering to wane at this critical juncture in young adulthood when the pressures from school and new careers are at their peak.
Younger Volunteers: Investing in Our Future
Volunteer involvement has much offer adolescents (age 12-18) and youth transitioning to adulthood (age 19-30). Aside from its widely acknowledged direct benefits to the community and those served, volunteerism has been shown to contribute to a variety of developmental assets for youth including: identity, skills enhancement, increased job marketability, self-esteem empathy, significant relationships, and the opportunity to build a larger social network.
In addition, volunteerism promotes positive citizenship and community vitality. Youth are encouraged to become more involved in their communities, feel more connected, and are more likely to demonstrate concern and stay (or return) to their communities of origin (de Guzman, 2007).
An investment in youth volunteering is also an investment in our collective philanthropic future. “Adolescence can be an important time to develop one’s altruistic identity and to start working in and for the community. Indeed, it was found that 44% of adult volunteers started working for their communities at adolescence. Adults who began volunteering at adolescence are twice more likely to volunteer than those who did not volunteer when they were younger” (Oesterle, Johnson, & Mortimer, 2004).
Research has demonstrated, furthermore, that teens have definite advantages over adults in providing volunteer-based direct services to at-risk youth, specifically, offering benefits to both youth volunteers and those they serve. The clients (at-risk youth) perceived youth volunteers as helpful and described how their youth peers changed their worldview and inspired them to volunteer as well. In addition, there are blurred boundaries between youth clients and volunteers that ultimately benefit both (Haski-Leventhal, et al., 2008).
Meeting Youth Volunteers Where They’re At
Research shows that youth volunteers have different motivations, benefits and costs than adult volunteers. Youth volunteers are more relationship oriented while adult volunteers are more service oriented. Not surprising, the volunteer social group plays several important roles in youth volunteering (Haski-Leventhal, et al., 2008).
Moreover, practical and emotional barriers such as schedules (extra meetings), family obligations (childcare of siblings), economic (the need to work a paying job), transportation, parental involvement, and insecurity and lack of belonging may all have an effect on a youth’s ability or inclination to serve.
Not only should volunteer-involving organizations be sensitive and accommodating to the special needs of youth, organizations can do more to ensure success. By incorporating well-researched positive youth development (PDA) practices and facilitating productive youth-adult partnerships (YA-P), agencies and volunteers can equally benefit. These are concepts that are well supported in academic literature, but have yet to take hold broadly in the voluntary sector, save for within youth development programs that involve service.
Youth engagement is a principle of positive youth development (PDA) that argues that youth are more than passive recipients of external influences. Rather, they actively shape their development by interacting with the people and opportunities in their environments. Youth engagement occurs in youth-adult partnerships (Y-AP) where power is shared and both groups teach and learn from one another.
Researchers define Y-AP as a cornerstone of Positive Youth Development (PYD) “where youth and adults have equal potential to make decisions, utilize skills, and promote program and community change. Y-AP seeks to balance the power between youth and adults as they work together for a shared purpose).” (Zeldin, & Leidheiser, 2014).
Ideas for Engaging Younger Volunteers
There are a variety of ways youth can become involved in their communities, and many of these can develop into career paths for youth. Below are a few roles that combine youth service with youth development. Youth Volunteer and Community Involvement Roles (adapted from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Adolescent Health)
- Youth Councils – formal bodies made up of youth who advise decision makers on matters pertinent to young people
- Youth Governance – support young people in leading an organization and encourage them to develop efforts that nurture healthy adolescents
- Youth as Member of Board of Directors – Consider establishing a youth position on your organization’s governing board and ensure it is filled regularly
- Youth Voice – creating opportunities for youth to express themselves, voice their ideas and provide input into projects or programs. It is critical for youth to actually be heard (e.g., through photography, theater, music, etc.)
- Youth Leadership Programs – providing leadership training to young people and give them opportunities to develop important life skills (4-H, Scouting).
- Youth Advocacy – offering ways for youth to speak out on issues affecting adolescent health, such as texting, later start times in schools, tobacco use, or healthy eating, and to advocate for themselves and their needs
- Service Learning – experiential volunteering projects, usually coupled with school curriculum or where youth can obtain credits
- Youth Organizing (or Youth Action) – developing and implementing an initiative or campaign that brings together peers for a cause that brings about systemic change
- Youth Civic Engagement – voting or supporting voter registration or get out the vote campaigns
- Direct Service (mentoring, etc.) and Mutual Aid (peer support, groups)
- Public Sector Civil Society Program (AmeriCorps/City Year) – members commit to a year of full or part-time service; members may receive a living allowance and an education award that can be put toward paying for college
- Membership Groups – political parties, associations, clubs, etc.
An investment in youth civic engagement and volunteerism, supported by a foundation of positive youth development and authentic youth-adult partnership practices has great potential for the future. Organizations may reap rewards by developing active citizens today that can actively help shape our collective tomorrows.