Engage young volunteers across the organization

If volunteering for young people is often a means of career exploration, organizations need to offer volunteer opportunities across the organization – service delivery, administration, governance, and leadership.

Young volunteers often equate volunteering with front-line roles. And as organizations, we often equate young volunteers with front line roles. But, volunteers can be engaged in marketing, board coordination, IT, project management, fund development, advisory roles, building management, etc. etc. Every department in your organization should be able to imagine how the perspective of a young person could improve their work. And every department in your organization should be able to imagine how they can play a role in educating our future citizens.

Don’t dump social media on young volunteers

There are a few types of volunteer roles for which organizations commonly recruit young volunteers. While social media may be one of the ones that is explicitly recruited for, often social media sneaks onto the plates of Millennial volunteers.

Imagine an event committee. The event needs to be promoted, and the marketing person decides that social media is going to be one of the tools used to spread the word. The committee looks around the table, and all eyes eventually fall to the young person.

What’s wrong with this picture?

  • The young person may have no interest in adding this to their volunteer commitment.
  • The person may not actually even use “the twitter” or Facebook pages, etc.
  • The person may have wanted to be on the committee to gain/use other skills like sponsorship, communications, logistics or volunteer management.
  • Just because someone knows how to use a phone, it doesn’t mean they can build a telemarketing campaign, and the same goes for social media.

Don’t assume.

Here are some possible alternative actions:

  • Explicitly include social media skills during the committee recruitment so that you can screen for people that know what they’re doing and want to do it.
  • Have the person who is familiar with social media train another member who is more interested in it.
  • Delegate social media to a staff person who is better equipped to represent the organization publicly.
  • Don’t use social media at all. The decision to use it may not have been an informed one in the first place.

I speak from direct experience. Even though I’m at the oldest end of the Millennial age range, I’m often the youngest person in a room. And I’m pretty sure eyes weren’t falling on me because of spinach in my teeth.

Avoid this when naming volunteer roles for young people

Assistant.

When creating a volunteer role aimed at young people, don’t use this word in the title.  Screw organizational hierarchy – if your title is “coordinator”, don’t just focus on role names that sound “beneath” you.

Using “assistant” trivializes the role and can create a mindset that this person is someone that be sent all the administrative crap work to, rather than someone who is a valuable contributor. (While we’re at it, if that’s what you’re actually looking for – someone to send all the administrative crap work to – you should probably be rethinking that too).

It also is not as impressive on a young person’s resume. If you’re looking for a volunteer with a bit of experience, use a title that helps them build a narrative of roles with increasing responsibility.

Here are other words to try out:

  • editor
  • designer
  • manager
  • coordinator
  • officer
  • advisor
  • contributor
  • organizer
  • planner
  • guide
  • writer
  • operator
  • volunteer
  • educator
  • specialist

The importance of references to Millennial volunteers

In almost all volunteer role descriptions that I create, one of the benefits for the volunteer that I list (among other like contributing to a cause, connecting with good people, gaining experience in area XYZ) is the provision of a letter of reference (upon request) after successful completion of the role.

For many Millennials, volunteering is not only a way to do something for a mission they care about – the experience is also about career exploration and networking. Help them by making references a part of the recognition and reward of volunteering.

References don’t need to be time-consuming custom reference letters. Here are some ideas to make references less work and more meaningful:

  • Have the volunteer write the reference letter themselves, highlighting what they feel are the most important contributions they made (and that have most relevance to their career goals). Edit it so that it matches your writing style and aligns with your impressions of the young person’s contributions.
  • Provide a LinkedIn reference. A few sentences will do. Less formal than a reference letter, but more public (and therefore, for many Millennials, more valuable).
  • Share positive words via Twitter or Facebook. Link to their profile and say thanks with specific reference to their contributions. If it makes sense to reference their jobs/freelance work/company/website, do that too.

Blend activism with volunteerism to keep young people engaged

Many volunteer roles filled by young people put them on the front lines of an organization. In some cases this can help connect them to the organization’s mission, but in many cases, it many lead to feelings of total disconnection from the big picture. In other ways, Millennials can be made to feel like they are just cheap labour, to be called upon when their hands are needed – again, leading to feelings of disconnection to the big change the organization wished to make in the world.

To help young people contribute in multiple ways to your cause and keep them engaged beyond their hands, include opportunities for activism in your communications with them. Here are a few ideas for blending activism with their volunteer roles (either in addition to or in between volunteer roles):

  • Check to see if they are following your org on Facebook or Twitter. Share articles, memes or petitions of interest for them to pass on to their networks, especially those not produced by your organization (connecting them to the bigger cause).
  • Share news articles and suggest opportunities to send a ‘letter to the editor’.
  • Ask them to provide quotes for press releases.
  • Ask them to serve on advisory bodies or board committee that focus on public policy or strategic planning.

How to address “I don’t know how” as a reason for not volunteering

According to the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, and for reasons that many people in the nonprofit sector are dumbfounded by, a major reason why young people don’t volunteer is that they don’t know how.

For some Millennials, this may mean that they don’t know how to get started, or where to look, or how to apply for roles. For others, this may mean that the tasks involved in volunteering are mysterious.

Whether as nonprofit professionals we understand this or not – the reason exists, and we need to address it.

Organizations need to create very easy and straightforward entry points to volunteering. Here are some examples of what can be done to bring Millennial volunteers into the fold.

  • Hold a regular, monthly “get to know us” night where people can drop in, meet others interested in the cause, learn a bit about the organization (or even learn a new skill/theory related to the cause), and meet people that would be engaging them as volunteers.
  • Offer group volunteering, through already existing groups that young people are involved with (e.g. PACs or childcare facilities for Millennials with children,meetups, university clubs and residences, workplaces).
  • Offer drop in volunteer roles – activities that can engage new volunteers, but aren’t reliant on them (e.g. invasive plant weeding, translation-a-thons). If your organization doesn’t have a readily apparent drop-in role, partner with organizations that do.
  • Pare down volunteer roles applications. Don’t require volunteers to fill out ominous forms as a part of the application process. Screen for the basics and get the rest later.

The first question to ask new Millennial volunteers

During the recruitment process, or shortly thereafter, be sure to ask the following question of new young volunteers:

What do you want to get out of this experience?

Some people may assume that a new line on the old resume is enough of a benefit for young volunteers. While this may be one benefit, Millennials are seeking much more. If you don’t know, you risk putting in the effort of offering rewards that have no value.

In my recent experience engaging volunteers, here are some common responses I’ve heard to this question:

I want to meaningfully contribute to a cause that’s important to me.

I want to connect with other people who are have experience in this area.

I want more experience with (insert skill/task).

I think I might be interested in finding a job in this area in the future.

These fit exactly with what the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating over the years has found – in general – for people aged 15-24, and 25-34. But for each and every individual, you won’t know until you ask.