Do you need a strategy to recruit Millennial volunteers?

The answer is probably yes.

Some organizations have brand recognition enough to not have a unique strategy to recruit young volunteers. But most organization don’t have that advantage.

For a recent client, 27 Shift conducted interviews with nonprofit executives across Canada. Interestingly, some organizations lamented the dearth of young volunteers, how young people don’t volunteer anymore. Completely inaccurate if we go by the results of the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating.

However, organizations that enjoyed the time and talents of young volunteers often had success because they intentionally sought out Millennials, and didn’t just wait for them to show up.

Here are some ideas for intentionally building space for young volunteers:

  • partner with university courses
  • partner with other nonprofit organizations with young clients
  • develop roles that speak to the interests of young people
  • create low barrier entry points
  • create ways for boomers to volunteer with their young adult children

High-impact, short-term volunteer roles for Millennials

A few of the various hats that I wear involve working with young volunteers. One question I ask when interviewing an individual for a particular role is:

“What triggered you to email me about this volunteer role?”

While “contribution to a cause I care about” is usually high on the list, the reality that many of them share is that they loved how the roles were short-term, had a specific end-date, had clear outcomes and objectives, and would have a large and direct impact on the success of the organization and its mission. Even more specifically, some younger volunteers shared how the commitment fit perfectly with their schedule – a month off before law school started up again, a flexible schedule leading up to giving birth, etc.

One of the messages I take away from these conversations is people are willing to contribute their time if it’s worth it.

These short-term, high-impact roles can take a few different shapes:

  • research
  • task-force (designed to give advice on a specific area)
  • committee
  • project (with a goal to produce a specific output)

Some of the favourite work I’ve done involved setting up a group of young volunteers with clear objectives, helping out with clarifying process (eg. timeline, communication preferences), divvying up roles/responsibilities (including one person who is responsible for driving the timeline) and just sitting back and only stepping in to support when necessary. My role becomes less day-to-day volunteer management and more volunteer engagement strategy.

Don’t rely on young volunteers

I’m not saying you can’t rely on young volunteers, it’s just better if you don’t have to.

With any volunteer role, if the world will fall apart because an individual volunteer is not able to show up for a role, there’s a flaw in the role design.

Millennial volunteers have diverse time commitments that are often fast changing – high pressure work deadlines, school projects, child care complications, person health issues. Often a volunteer commitment is not of the highest priority, regardless of good intentions.

Rather than lament on this fact, design roles from the outset so that the work can continue.

  • Make work virtual – allow them to work on their own time and not at a set time and place
  • Design group roles – if one person needs to drop away for a bit, the rest of the group can continue
  • Provide autonomy for flex-time decisions – if a volunteer wants to still complete the work, but can only do it on a different day or a different week, allow for scheduling changes
However, if a volunteer is consistently unreliable, let them go for the sake of everyone’s energy. Give them a kind way out to start (eg “It seems like you have other priorities that are conflicting with your availability to contribute as a volunteer. Are you interested in stepping away for a while, and coming back when you have more freedom with your time?”) and be firmer if the pattern continues.

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.

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 CharityVillage.com 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.