Developing leadership skills in youth through volunteerism

Engaging youth in volunteerism brings countless benefits for the participants, nonprofit organizations and the community. For participants, volunteering has been known to improve mental health, help cultivate valuable relationships and provide leadership opportunities. Organizations that engage young volunteers benefit from their diverse perspectives and innovative ideas.

Youth volunteerism also benefits the community at large; by helping youth to develop leadership skills, it is more likely that these individuals will become engaged in community. While there is a large amount of evidence that demonstrates these benefits, there is still more that nonprofits and charities can do to provide equal opportunities for youth. Read more to learn about why youth should be included at volunteer tables, how we’ve engaged young people at Pillar, and what we’ve learned about the best ways to work with them.

Benefits of volunteering for young people

Today, young people are facing many barriers including a rise in mental health issues. There have been multiple studies showing that volunteering increases happiness and supports mental health. Providing opportunities for youth to contribute to a cause greater than themselves provides meaning and purpose. Volunteering also provides younger people with the opportunity to find mentors and develop relationships that may help them in their future careers. For those who are facing barriers such as poverty or being a newcomer, these connections can provide opportunities they may not have otherwise been able to experience.

Leadership development is another valuable opportunity to be gained from volunteering. In volunteer roles, young people may get the opportunity to do work they wouldn’t get to do in an entry-level paid position. They may be able to plan events, develop communications plans or even lead teams. These experiential learning opportunities are invaluable for gaining the experience required for future employment and may give participants a foot in the door with the organization.

Benefits of youth volunteerism for nonprofits and the community  

Canada has the second largest nonprofit workforce in the world and 50 percent of nonprofits are managed by volunteers. With an aging population, engaging youth and cultivating lasting relationships with them will be essential for the functioning of many organizations. Youth also bring diverse and innovative perspectives and unique skill sets that can inject creativity into projects. According to a study from the University of Waterloo, young people between the ages of 15-25 have a variety of traits that make them great innovators and organizations who engage them will be more likely to find solutions to societal challenges. From a community perspective, it’s beneficial to build intergenerational relationships to ensure knowledge transfer and the cross-pollination of ideas that can also help to develop solutions to pressing community problems.

If we expect young people to turn into adults who are engaged in community, we need to give them opportunities to be involved and have a voice from an early age. Youth engagement in volunteerism may also play a role in having the workforce shift to the middle. If we look for ways to engage young people, they are more likely to become future leaders who want to have a positive community impact. Even if these youth don’t end up working in the nonprofit sector, this early engagement may shift their business practices.

Challenges in youth volunteer engagement

Through our various youth engagement initiatives at Pillar, we have seen first hand the challenges that youth face in finding volunteer opportunities. First, while there are many organizations who see the benefits of working with younger people, there are still those who won’t engage them as they feel they are unreliable or require too much attention. There is work to be done towards eliminating this age bias and helping organizations understand how to engage with young people and how they can learn together.

Youth volunteerism initiatives at Pillar

Supporting youth volunteerism has been an important part of our programming over the years including the ChangeTheWorld Youth Volunteer program and the Canada Life (formerly London Life) Young Leaders Program. Unfortunately as with all nonprofits, our programming is funding dependant, but our approach to engaging youth is built into our diversity and inclusion practices across our organization. Going forward, we will also continue to make presentations at local schools and drive young people to use our online volunteer portal.

If we expect young people to turn into adults who are engaged in community, we need to give them opportunities to be involved and have a voice from an early age. Youth engagement in volunteerism may also play a role in having the workforce shift to the middle. If we look for ways to engage young people, they are more likely to become future leaders who want to have a positive community impact.

More recently, we have been partnering with the London Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) because they are a youth focused organization – who were established and run by youth – and are on the pulse of engaging youth meaningfully. A recent joint partnership will be providing nonprofits with knowledge and insight about how to best engage young people in leadership positions in their nonprofits. We will lean on the organizations who connect with youth daily, learn from them and share this knowledge with other nonprofits. 

For over 10 years, we participated in the ChangeTheWorld Youth Volunteer program with a core focus on supporting students to complete their 40 hours of volunteer service. Pillar has worked towards this goal through developing relationships with schools and community groups, creating marketing materials about volunteerism and delivering presentations to students about volunteering. Over the years, the program has included other youth outreach elements. In recent years, we have supported indigenous youth leadership, hosted career talks with a youth focus, connected students to community engaged learning opportunities, and partnered with the London Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) to develop a Youth Action Team and host a mentorship day. In the past 10 years, there have been 18,064 youth involved in ChangeTheWorld who have contributed 78,232 volunteer hours. In 2018, the program shifted to focus on supporting youth who had barriers to volunteering and included 322 participants, accounted for 1548 volunteer hours, and lead to 100 percent satisfaction for volunteers. All participants also expressed their experiences helped them with future employment and that they would continue to volunteer going forward.

Another way we support the development of young leaders in our community is through the Canada Life Young Leaders program. Our network approach led us to partner with LYAC again on this program. This program provides young people with the opportunity to learn about community leadership by being at decision-making tables and participating in learning workshops with the goal to give them a solid understanding of how decisions are made to achieve organizational and community impact. As a result of this program, nonprofit boards in the city now have access to a strong group of young leaders who can provide their perspective and bring an innovation mindset to the table.

2017 marked another significant event in our youth engagement strategy when we hosted the Governor General for a facilitated discussion with young people on the topic of “New Ways of Engaging Youth and New Canadians in Volunteering and Community Change”. This discussion explored how social innovation can lead to new ways of engaging our young leaders and newcomers in smart and caring ways that lead to deep community change. In follow up, the young people created a working group to explore how Pillar could better engage with them on social media and made recommendations that included using Instagram as our primary social media platform, which we are currently exploring. 

Organizations who want to attract young volunteers also need to ensure that they are providing meaningful opportunities and that they can dedicate time to mentoring. Too often, young people find that opportunities are not all they hoped for because not enough time and attention has been dedicated to supporting the volunteers. There also needs to be more paid work opportunities for young people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer their time due to having to support their families. Unfortunately at this time, sustained funding for these jobs is difficult to find.

Top tips for engaging youth in volunteerism
  1. Consider your language – Whether you are addressing a crowd, developing online communications or creating brochures, make sure that the language you’re using is accessible to young people and not intimidating.
  2. Use the right platform – Technology is always changing and so are the preferred social media platforms of young people. Keep up with the trends and make sure you are putting your time into platforms that your audience is using.
  3. Think about barriers  – There are certain unique barriers that may make it challenging for young people to volunteer. Consider how you could accommodate their needs whether it be scheduling around school hours, providing a meal, or offering bus tickets.

  4. Be flexible – Most younger people have busy schedules between school, work and family obligations. Try to provide diverse programs with different options for time availability. 

  5. Stay open – Embrace new ideas and different cultural perspectives that can enrich your organization. Look at new roles that could be established to fit the unique skills that your volunteer can offer.

  6. Provide purposeful work – When young people are given responsibility and autonomy they find the experience most meaningful as opposed to just doing busywork. 

  7. Recognize cultural differences – Be sensitive to both culture and subcultural differences that exist in your volunteer base and look for ways you can learn from them.

  8. Look beyond numbers to measure impact – When evaluating volunteer programs, do not look to numbers alone to evaluate the success of your programs. Instead go deeper to look at the value and connections young people gained from the collaboration.