Tips and Tools for Engaging Youth Volunteers

Volunteerism March 14, 2012

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

Does your organization have a plan for engaging the next generation of volunteers?

While youth volunteers (15-24 year-olds) account for only a small percentage of volunteers today, Volunteer Canada cautions that their “recruitment and engagement is critical  to ensuring the future sustainability of the voluntary sector” as the currently most active and engaged “volunteer cohort – seniors – begins to retire from their volunteer careers.”

As the Volunteer Canada Fact Sheet – Building the Bridge to Youth Volunteers – suggests, with volunteering programs being mandated in many school districts, organizations have an opportunity to engage teens and build the foundation for a long-term volunteer relationship. This means organizations need to find ways of enticing youth with incentives for attracting youth to volunteer opportunities” as well as “mak[ing] the experience fun and rewarding for young people, so they will be more likely to continue their engagement into the future.” The reality is that while they may see volunteering “as an opportunity to meet different kinds of people, make new friends, and socialize, many wondered why they should volunteer for free when they could make money instead through paid jobs.” 

Understanding youth volunteers

To attract and retain youth volunteers, you need to understand their expectations and what motivates this age group. Here are some guidelines for Canadian youth offered in the Volunteer Canada Fact Sheet:Canadian youth are:
  • Career-focused, flexible and receptive to new ideas
  • More open-minded -- have grown up being exposed to greater diversity than previous generations
  • Energetic and enthusiastic -- have high levels of vitality
  • Technologically savvy -- respond to innovative online communications and recruitment techniques
  • Prefer peer camaraderie -- as social beings, youth enjoy meeting new people and participating in volunteer activities with their friends
  • In many instances affected by mandatory community service requirements -- e.g., community service hours are required for high school graduation in some provinces and territories
  • Seeing volunteering as a bridge -- something that supports their search for employment, skills development, and networking
  • Sensitive to perceived age discrimination -- prefer volunteer tasks where they feel respected and are given some responsibility

Bridging the gap between youth volunteering expectations and existing opportunities

In a post last spring – Managing Volunteers and Expectations  – we reported on a Volunteer Canada research report (Bridging the Gap)  that revealed that:

many young Canadians perceive a lack of respect when being assigned volunteer duties.
...They feel discounted by other volunteers, and say they are given the simpler types of tasks that nobody else would want to do.
...Despite the fact that youth continue to have the highest volunteer rates, are more open-minded, and have superior social media skills, they are often left out of the strategic decision-making in organizations and are sidelined to menial tasks.”

New tools to help understand and engage youth volunteers

To help organizations engage youth volunteers and guide young Canadians seeking meaningful community involvement, Volunteer Canada, in collaboration with Manulife Financial, teamed up with the Volunteer Action Centre of Kitchener-Waterloo to produce a suite of tools and resources. Their website offers the following new volunteer tools:
  • Building Blocks for Youth Volunteer Engagement: An interactive document designed for parents, teachers and youth which offers information about types of volunteering (e.g., informal, formal, benefits, etc.) and self-assessment tools and skills-matching matrix for identifying skills and interests. It also offers tips for getting started with volunteering.
  • Engaging Youth Effectively:  Which details the stages involved in developing a youth community involvement strategy for community-based volunteer centres. It offers a model that outlines key relationships needed to develop a “robust youth engagement program.”

Using social media to engage youth

Not only do you need to understand what drives youth volunteers, you also need to know how to reach them!

A recent NTEN blog post - From Phones to Facebook: How to Engage Youth on the Front Lines of Social Media - written by Jason Shim (Specialty Mentoring Program Facilitator, Pathways to Education, Mosaic Counselling and Family Services) described his experience with outreach to high school students. After spending a lot of time attempting to reach students via phone, Shim and his colleagues set up a student advisory group to gain valuable insight into this age group’s “day-to-day use of technology.”

Based on his experience, Shim identified the following “six trends you need to know about engaging youth with social media:”

  1. Facebook is now the primary online communication medium for the majority of youth in high school.
  2. The majority of youth who have email accounts do not regularly check their inboxes.
  3. Some youth do not use email at all, preferring to use only Facebook for online communication, since Facebook allows students to authenticate accounts with mobile phones.
  4. Students with cell phones typically average between 1,200 – 1,500 sent messages per month.
  5. The number of text messages sent is lower for students who use smartphones. Instead, they are using BBM, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.
  6. SMS broadcasting is a particularly effective tool to remind and engage students of upcoming events or tasks that need to be completed.

Planning for the next generation of volunteers

As the Engaging Youth Effectively guide suggests, our “voluntary sector stands at a critical crossroad. Our ‘uber volunteers’ – the 7 per cent of volunteers who contribute 78 per cent of volunteer hours – are aging, and the next generation is not necessarily following in their footsteps.” By better understanding how to engage and retain youth volunteers, you can begin to build the foundation of long-term relationships with the youth who will become your future ‘uber volunteers.’

Photo credit: Volunteer Group raising hands - from Big Stock


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Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • David Crowley:
    Good post. We have definitely seen the Facebook preference over email in our work with teens!
  • Lori:
    David: Thanks for the comment - it's good to hear firsthand what is working for organizations out there.


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