Young Volunteers

The television news show "60 Minutes" aired a feature story this past November on “Children Helping Children.” It centered on Craig Kielburger, who at age 12 took action against child labor and exploitation in Pakistan, eventually recruiting his friends to the cause and founding Free the Children. Some 17 years later it is an international charity with more than 1.7 million youth involved in education and development programs in 45 countries.

Apart from telling the remarkable story of Kielburger and his organization, "60 Minutes" was fascinated by Free the Children’s core value of involving young people in social justice work and direct action to help others. What message does this extensive youth volunteer effort bring to all nonprofits? Most important, is your own organization tapping the ideas and energy of young adults, teenagers, and even children?

Define Our Terms

The terms “youth” and “young” are applied in so many different ways that they no longer convey real information. No specific age cohort is universally accepted. For some, “youth” means anyone below a determined ceiling, for others it implies teenagers but not children (another arbitrary cut-off point). Consider that we will send an 18-year-old to war but deny that same person the right to buy alcohol. In other contexts, such as United Nations development work, “youth” means “young adults” older than age 18 and up to age 30.

Kielburger was 12 years old when he started to volunteer — a huge difference from his current age of 29. Yet, he still thinks of himself as running a “youth” organization. In terms of volunteer engagement in your organization, it might be useful to determine what age groups you most want to recruit and then develop intentional strategies for making that happen. Just be careful not to ignore the potential of young people younger than age 18 out of prejudice, misconceptions, or fear of risk. Even if you focus on teenagers and children, there is a range of ways an organization might accept their services:

  • School groups or classes volunteering together under the supervision of their teacher or a faculty advisor. This might be integrated into the learning curriculum (in which case it is likely to be called service-learning), an enrichment activity, or the project of an after-school student club. Note that the school community tends to prefer the term “community service” to “volunteering;”
  • Established youth organizations offering a service project that they complete as a self-organized troop/club/team, under the supervision of their adult group leader;
  • Families volunteering as a multi-generational unit, with parent involvement; and,
  • Motivated and talented youngsters applying to volunteer as individuals. The real question is not whether your organization welcomes any of these types of young volunteers, but whether you value them as a special set of supporters and contributors.

A Case for Welcoming Young Volunteers

We’re all familiar with the research that shows that a positive volunteer experience when young increases the likelihood of continuing community engagement as an adult. That’s important for society, but might not justify creating volunteer assignments for children in your organization today. And, judging by reported complaints and requests, too many pre-teens and even teenagers are not finding meaningful volunteer roles open to them even if they seek them. In fairness, it is challenging to determine what a 16-year-old, let alone a 9-year-old, volunteer might contribute to a complex organization doing serious work. What skills can children offer? What level of maturity? Agencies also wonder about increasing their risk and liability, and whether insurance will cover children as volunteers. Then there’s the legal requirement to conduct police and background checks on every adult who will be working with a child, including a young volunteer.

Is deciding whether all this effort is justified by the resulting contributions of very young volunteers, avoid the negative stereotypes of ageism. With the right approach, what benefits might your organization gain?

First, if your organization provides services of any kind to teenagers and children, you have an obligation to ensure their perspectives as consumers are represented as you plan and assess those services. By definition, your paid staff will be adults. Recruit teens and children as peer reviewers. Seek out their insight and suggestions. Make them advisors to your board of directors.

At a minimum, convene regular input sessions with teams of young people, structuring questions and exercises that help them to express what they know. If you have younger volunteers assisting with daily work of any kind on site, periodically ask their opinions. You might need to schedule this formally, since it won’t necessarily happen if left to chance.

In the same vein, if you sponsor conferences, workshops, or community forums on topics about young people, it only seems fair to find ways to give them a voice, too. This might mean creating a speakers’ bureau of young presenters, producing a series of short video interviews with willing teens, or at least including a young person on a Q&A panel. Think about what young people might be really good at doing that older folks are not, or don’t want to be. High on the list might be understanding how to use smart phone capabilities and get the most from other emerging consumer technologies. Kids are not “learning” this, they are “inhaling” it. If you agree many young people are great at keeping up with mobile device trends, how can they advise you? How might they teach their skills to others? Think about “smartphone school” 8-year-olds might run at a retirement community.

What else might you gain from the young:

  • Social media site usage. It might be a bit scary, but even children these days can tell you more about Facebook, Yelp, and other interactive sites than most adults. Let them advise you or simply watch them interact to pick up tips.
  • Energy. Events or projects that need eager help always feel more upbeat when children are involved. Be sure to talk with each young volunteer at some point during or after the event to learn their perspective and possibly if they might want to do other things you do not expect.
  • Current jargon. Young volunteers can be your interpreters to new vocabulary, which often pops up overnight. In turn, this can help counselors and others to communicate with young clients or the public relations staff to create better Facebook postings on your organization’s profile page.

The point is that some teens and children can be helpers on countless projects, based on their skills and interests. They can also be tapped for their insights as youth. Never assume someone young is disengaged or even uninformed about important issues. Remember Craig Kielburger. He showed another common trait of children: They don’t know what “won’t work” and try anyway.

Not every organization will find a benefit that outweighs the effort of working with young volunteers. But what opportunities might you miss? A wonderful truth about volunteering is that it allows people to rise (or fall) to their level of competence, not the level of their age or credentials on paper. If a pre-teen wants a paying job, it is guaranteed to be menial, no matter whether the child is a genius or fantastically talented. In the best possible way, volunteering offers the chance to do what young people cannot be paid to do. If we do not welcome the bright, motivated youngster into our corps of supporters, who will? NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and the Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program (www.everyoneready.info). Her email is susan@energizeinc.com. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com