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.

Nonprofits should incubate external initiatives by Millennials

Millennials (usually of the university student variety) are often involved in initiatives related to sustainability, homelessness, international development, social justice, etc. as a part of student clubs, classes, or other. Some of these initiatives fit perfectly with your organization’s mission. Why not incubate these initiatives and budding ideas, engaging a new form of volunteer in the process?

If you are a community leader in, say, women’s equality, promote your organization as a social change incubator. Reach out to university groups, or students through relevant academic disciplines (Women Studies, Anthropology, etc.). Offer your organization as a resource – contacts, expertise, media advice, resources, business processes, meeting space, perhaps even a little little bit of $. Often these initiatives are not your run of the mill awareness- or fundraising activity so they may provide opportunities for your organization to get into the press. You’ll also be furthering your mission through the power of people, without loads of money. You might even learn a little something from Millennials in the process.

Provide young people volunteer opportunities beyond events and education

Young people are interested in more than just special event volunteering and education/mentorship/tutoring experiences.

I used to work at SFU, where I was responsible for getting SFU Volunteer Services up and running. Once and a while I’d review the volunteer experiences we had coming in from community organizations, and about 90% of the opportunities could be qualified as one of the following:

  • Day-of event volunteering
  • Tutoring youth
  • Mentoring youth
  • Running camps or other educational experiences for youth

It’s been a few years since I was at SFU, and I suspect the above 90% list could be expanded to include social media volunteer opportunities as well.

Not all Millennials want to be teachers. And the ones that already are teachers – they probably don’t want to spend their time doing more of the same of their day job. And event volunteering is a great first step for new volunteers, but what about the ones who have interested in deeper, more meaningful opportunities? And re: social media – just because someone uses a tool (like Twitter), doesn’t mean they are capable of developing strategy and effectively representing an organization on that same tool.

So what are some other options? Here are 5 random ideas:

  • Drafting press releases
  • Curating content for your organization’s blog/newsletter
  • Research (related to your cause/your business processes/your supporters etc.)
  • Providing advice on how to connect better with their university/workplace
  • Serving on a task force meant to strategize re: branding, supporter engagement, use of technology

Think about each of the areas in your organization – internal processes, programs, marketing, fundraising, etc. and think to yourself, “How could a young person’s voice/expertise/ideas/effort make this area even better?” And recruit for that.

Check you mindset on Millennials who volunteer

Young people these days get a bad wrap. Phrases like entitledshort attention spanself-absorbed, etc quickly come to mind. During recent research we completed for Volunteer Canada, some interviewees even suggested that “young people aren’t volunteering anymore”.

Self-fulfilling prophecy behaviour dictates that if we expect a certain type of behaviour, we will find it. We give more weight to experiences that confirm our expectations, and dismiss those that don’t fit with what we come to believe.

So instead of thinking:

  • Young people don’t volunteer anymore.
  • Millennials are entitled.
  • Youth only volunteer to get experience on their resume.
  • Millennials are all about social media.
  • Young people don’t follow through with volunteer commitments because we don’t pay them.

(Not all of these are bad, and the first isn’t even true, but they can lead to poor or limited volunteer engagement strategies.)

Instead, look for behaviour that confirms:

  • Young people love feeling connected to the big picture/the cause.
  • Millennials are storytellers and evangelists for organizations that provide great experiences.
  • Youth are looking for growth and development opportunities.
  • Young people appreciate career opportunities that volunteering can provide.

The next time you hear someone at your organization bemoan Millennials, offer an anecdote that challenges their assumptions. If you don’t have any stories of your own yet to offer, create them by testing the “new” assumptions provided above. Give yourself and your young volunteers more than one opportunity to prove you wrong.

How technology can make or break your volunteer engagement

I recently spoke at Vancouver Net Tuesday on the topic of technology and volunteer engagement. My talk was titled “6 questions to ask before using technology for volunteer engagement“. While the questions can trigger deeper thinking before implementing technology, much of boils down to this:

Does your use of technology make you stick out or stand out?

When technology is used for volunteer engagement, the results are not always fantastic. Here are 6 ways technology can make or break your volunteer engagement.

Technology that sticks out

Collecting information

Asking volunteers to fill out actual forms. Paper, Word documents, PDFs. Print and mail, print and scan, save and send back. These scream INEFFICIENT! Even if you don’t require printing, the way most people create forms in Word, they end up looking pretty funny when filled in and require fiddling. They also indicate that there’s probably going to be a staff member at the other end doing a lot of menial cutting and pasting or data entry. The only time paper forms are OK is when volunteers face economic barriers and don’t have access to computer or internet. But most public library facilities serve this purpose – usually internet is free, but printing is not and scanning doesn’t exist.

Solution: Online surveys. Whether as part of a more robust database system or free tools like Google Forms (a part of Google Docs), Survey Monkey, Wufoo, or FluidSurveys, collect your data so that the volunteer and the administrator don’t have to hassle with administrivia. Instead, they can work with data that has been entered directly by the individual. AND often you can integrate your forms with other software you use.

Volunteer administration systems

Some organizations buy into intense software to coordinate and schedule volunteers. They may simplify things on the back end for the coordinator, but are often headaches for the volunteer–especially in the application stage. If a person is considering volunteering or just wants to learn more about opportunities with an organization, sending them through a 10 page volunteer administration system and asking them every question the organization could ever think of needing the answer to (from t-shirt size to 5 references to the names of any planned future children) for them only to find out on page 9 that there are only two distinct volunteer roles, neither of which is interesting to the volunteer or neither of which has openings — not OK. This is not an effective way to welcome a supporter into the organization.

Solution: Mix the admin with the personal. Have the initial application form (ahem, online survey) be short. Name, contact information, what triggered their interest in the organization, if any particular role is of interest to them. Done. Then, follow up by email or phone. Within the week. 24 hours even better – catch them while their interest is hot.

Social media

You know those Twitter accounts that only promote fundraising events? Or how about those Facebook pages that haven’t had new content for a year? If a volunteer starts following an organization via social media, bad social media skills can be a turnoff.

Solution: Don’t use social media if your organization is not going to invest in it. Turning to the youngest person in your office and asking them to do it off the corner of their desk is not OK. And if you do invest in it, be sure to involve someone that has a talent for marketing and engagement strategy. Just because a young person has personally used social media doesn’t mean they have the experience to implement a campaign or plan around it.

Technology that stands out

Social media

Just as social media can make an organization stick out, it can also make them stand out. Not for promoting, but for engagement. Social media is used best as a communication tool with people that are already involved with your organization. When getting contact information from volunteers, also find out if they’re on Twitter. Mention them in your Tweets or on your Facebook page by thanking a group of volunteers, or spreading interesting information they’ve shared.

Collaborative on-line documents

As a jury member for this year’s Vancouver Timeraiser, I was surprised how many applicant organizations didn’t have any positions that could be done from home. Really? I’ve worked with teams of people pulling together research on women and politics or articles on millennial engagement with ZERO in-person contact. The ones I use most frequently are Google Docs (and spreadsheets, and forms) and Wikis. You can change the settings so that anyone can edit and see the document, or only those you invite.

Myth: You need a Gmail account to use Google Docs.
Fact: Nope, you just need a Google account. You can create one using any email address.

None at all

I don’t mean you don’t actually use technology – just that volunteers don’t even notice it because everything is so smooth. Kind of like government – we don’t notice it when it’s working well.

Do an audit of your volunteer engagement processes – recruitment, screening, training, scheduling, working, rewarding, coordinating, communicating – to determine how technology is helping or hindering engagement at each step. Better yet, create a high impact volunteer role for a volunteer do an audit.

How do you use technology to effectively engage volunteers? Have you ever been frustrated by an organization’s use of technology (or lack thereof)?