Incorporate leadership opportunities within volunteer roles for Millennials

Volunteering is an opportunity for learning and growth for young people. One method to increase engagement in a volunteer role is to introduce an opportunity for Millennials to demonstrate leadership beyond personal leadership.

Some ideas:

  • Ask for their feedback about another area of the organization. “I know you are involved in area XYZ, but I’m interested to hear if you have any ideas about ABC.”
  • Ask them to share their knowledge with others. Facilitate a rotation of lunch and learns where each volunteer can teach other volunteers a specific skill, tool, or base of knowledge.
  • Ask them for input on the volunteer role. Part way through the role, ask for their advice on changes to the volunteer orientation, the way volunteers are organized, or the volunteer work itself.

Make volunteer training transferable for young volunteers

For many volunteer roles, specific (and often times in-depth) training is required. Rather than making the training just another hoop young volunteers have to jump through to actually get volunteering, create a training program that is bigger than the volunteer opportunity. Sometimes, training isn’t even necessary, but general (and transferable) training could benefit both the volunteers and the program/project they are serving.

What do I mean by making transferable training that is bigger than the volunteer role itself? Here are some examples to illustrate:

  • If the role involves giving presentations, make the training about giving good presentations in general, and not just about how to give a specific presentation.
  • If the role involves social media, make the training about social media strategies in general, and not just about how to use social media to engage the public in a specific project.
  • If the role involves dealing with a vulnerable population, make the training aboutgeneral issues faced by the population, and not just about specific situations the volunteer may run into.

The training can still involve necessary specifics, but as an application of the more general training rather than the entirety of the training itself.

Training that is more general is more transferable, and thus more of a benefit to young volunteers as they explore career paths and develop new skills.

Use technology to collaborate with Millennial volunteers online

Collaboration and brainstorming doesn’t have to happen at a set time and place, in person, on walls with flip chart paper and post it notes.

In order to work with young peoples’ busy (and often inflexible) schedules because of work, school and childcare, use technology to collaborate online. This is also a fantastic way for national organizations to work with people outside of their geographic area.

I’m currently working with 3 other young women to plan (as volunteers) the next version of the recently closed Next Leaders Network in Vancouver. Sure, we met once in person. But so much work can get done in between meetings if technology is harnessed.

My two standard tools are:

  • Google Docs – a place to build and edit documents openly online. People don’t have to have a Google account to contribute. The person that creates the document can leave it open for anyone with the link to edit. Use it for brainstorming, everyone adding their own responses to a question, for people to add comments to an existing document. 27 Shift used Google Docs last year tocrowdsource an article for for a special Millennial edition of Village Vibes that we produced.
  • Dropbox – a place to share files online. People that install Dropbox on their desktop have folders that look like any other folders, except they are linked to “the cloud” instead of just a computer. When you are online, the files sync up automatically. If you are offline you can still access articles, but they won’t be updated for everyone else until you get back online. No more emailing versions of documents around and around.

These two common tools are nothing new for many people who work collaboratively and virtually. But using them allows organizations to engage volunteers who aren’t able to contribute at a fixed time and place.

Any other collaborative online tools you find useful?

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


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.