Recruiting Youth Volunteers

Only a small number of Australian community organisations really turn their efforts to recruiting young people as volunteers, perhaps because of a common belief that today's young people are selfish and uninvolved. This is definitely a misconception.

Across Australia thousands of young people are giving up their time, talents and energy and working to combat prejudice, poverty, and drug abuse. Young people are involved in recycling projects and environmental clean-ups, marching on parliament, and handing out food to the homeless.

Why do you want youth volunteers?

You should have already done an organisational analysis, and therefore know what jobs you have for volunteers. You can look over these and see which of them are suitable for people who are energetic, enthusiastic, and creative but may have very little experience and or very few professional skills.

Young people are more likely to have open minds, accept change readily, and are able to grow in the job if you give them the responsibility. They can have boundless energy if they are working on something that really interests them.

Having young people work with your enterprise also gives you a chance to educate and interest the next generation. All voluntary organisations have an interest in, and a responsibility for, stimulating community spirit and in developing habits of generosity at an early age.

If you are working in any field that involves young people as clients, youth volunteers can be particularly valuable. They can provide a bridge to the culture and reactions of the people you are trying to reach.

Duty of care

Remember, you have a duty of care towards your volunteers. If you're working with younger people, who will probably not know as much about workplace safety as older people, your responsibility will be greater. If your volunteers are under 18, you may need to get their parents' permission for them to be involved.

At the end of the day, of course, you will have to maintain your standards, and retain the ability to turn away a young volunteer, as with any volunteer, if they seem unsuitable or if they don't work out.

How do you find youth volunteers?

What about your clients, or the people your group works with? Does it include any people who can work as volunteers?

Do you have any young volunteers now? Can you tap into their networks? Can they be used as recruiters?

Look over your existing volunteer marketing. Is it going to be seen by young people? Is it worth expanding your reach? Is it the kind of thing that will appeal to young people? Do you need to have a special presentation for that group? Emphasise the element of personal development. Say that you're looking for young people.

Promote the achievements and gains of the young people you already have working in the organisation.

You may be able to make an arrangement with schools or colleges for work experience students; but remember that anybody you get under these circumstances will probably require a high level of supervision and training and be a very short-term proposition. You may do better if you are able to arrange with a university to take students on placement.

How do you keep youth volunteers?

The key to keeping youth volunteers, as with all volunteers, is to ensure that the position meets everyone's needs. You and your volunteers may be coming to the exchange with unreal expectations. It may be worth considering having a standard trial activity for prospective volunteers, some job that they can do that will give them a taste of how you work and what you're about. That will give you both a chance to make up your minds before putting in too much work on training and orientation.

What can young people get out of volunteering?

Ideally, volunteering contributes to the personal and professional development of the volunteer. It can bring job skills, communication skills, experience, contacts, and increased self-confidence. All these can help in the search for employment. They can also gain the satisfaction of thinking well of themselves for making a difference. And it can be fun.

Work skills and work habits are formed early, from turning up when you said you would to learning complex administrative procedures. Volunteers can learn from the organisation how to carry out community activities, how to influence policy, and how to get things done.

Whatever the person actually learns, volunteer work - providing skills and relevant experience - will always be an advantage on a job application or CV. An enthusiastic testimonial from the organisation's Director will be an additional plus.

Volunteering is a social enterprise, and young people will often enjoy the chance to meet like-minded people and make friends - friendships that can last for a lifetime. Personal development means more than just professional development, and the volunteer will learn the real meaning of doing things for other people.

What drives young people away?

Youth volunteers can be discouraged by all the things that discourage ordinary volunteers - poor organisation, poor supervision, unsatisfying jobs - but if you want to work with youth, you may have other issues.

Young people are particularly sensitive to being 'talked at' or 'talked down to'. They will expect meaningful duties, not ad hoc tasks that nobody else in the organisation wants to do. This doesn't mean that young people shouldn't be asked to do routine tasks; however, these tasks need to be shared by everyone in the organisation not just flung at young people.

Young adults expect you to listen respectfully to their opinions and suggestions. Don't just hear them out - give their proposals serious consideration. Accept your volunteers into the adult world on an equal basis.

They may want to be involved not only in deciding how to do things, but also in deciding what to do. An organisation that has a relatively closed decision-making process will have trouble attracting and motivating young volunteers.

Young people may well have expansive views of their own capacities that you do not fully share. This will require careful management, and may require compromise.

Don't be too dogmatic, and remember that they may be motivated to rise to the level of their aspirations.

What does your organisation need to change?

If you want youth volunteers, you have to be prepared to alter the way you work.

You may need to be more flexible with your schedules, looking for tasks that can be done outside office hours. You may need to be more flexible generally, and young people will help you manage this; they are not rusted on to old procedures and ideas, and may be able to uncover a new perspective on your problems.

You may need to look over your volunteer programs generally, and ask yourself if there are any changes that you would make if you had a younger team. You may want to think about having special youth projects that would make the best use of the strengths of younger groups. In doing this though, there is a risk that in setting up a separate work group of young people they may feel marginalised or excluded from the real work of the organisation.

You may have to modify your training procedures. They have enough classroom time already, so try to liven up your presentation. Remember, you can't assume that they know about even the common office procedures - this may be the first time they've ever had to pay an invoice or put a letter on to a file. Consider mentoring or coaching schemes.

There are often grants available for community groups that involve young people or projects where young people can learn. If you are a subscribers to Our Community's EasyGrants newsletter you can search our extensive grants database to see if there is an applicable grant.

Allocate more time at the beginning for supervision, and follow-up, and patching up after they make a mistake. Allow them to make mistakes, and try to use this as learning experiences rather than undercutting their confidence.

You've got young people working at the coalface, selling buttons and serving tea, but are you willing to have them involved in your governance structure? Are you going to encourage them to stand for your board or serve on important committees?

Again, don't just assume that they can't do these things, or even look at their qualifications and judge that they can't. Rather, think of what they could achieve if they had adequate support and mentoring. If you have young clients, can you combine user representation and youth representation?

Listen to what they say. Help them to set their goals, and to meet them.