teen volunteering

Teen Volunteering: How to Actually Engage Young People

There’s a lot to like about teen volunteering, and since Global Youth Service Day was last weekend, now’s a great time to explore how to engage more youth in service. With a little bit of effort, everyone can win.

Nonprofits can benefit from the enthusiasm of teenagers, their energy and ideas. By engaging youth in service, they also help grow the next generation of philanthropists and foster civically engaged communities.

They can also benefit from the results of intensive, project-based work that young people can take on (think: semester internships and summer fellowships). What’s more, student service clubs can help with collaborative one-off projects that are shepherded by teachers (think: days of service).

Young people benefit, too. In today’s world, it’s nearly impossible to get accepted into college without community service experience. For some scholarship programs, service is a requirement, both to apply and continue to receive funding.

Research conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found volunteerism is now a familiar and common concept for young people. 64% of teens surveyed said they had volunteered at least once in the past year.

The study also showed teen volunteering has an impact on academic achievement, civic engagement, and health in youth and young adults. Teens with high levels of civic efficacy were more likely to say they are in “very good” or “excellent” health (79% compared to 49% who don’t volunteer), and they were less likely to miss school. Moreover, teens who participate in an organization that strives to make a difference are more likely to say they will attend college (72% who volunteer versus 50% who don’t).

What’s not to like?  

The Real Deal on Teen Volunteers, From Teen Volunteers

Despite the clear benefits of youth and young adult volunteers, many charities still struggle to engage youth successfully.

So, to get some advice, I went straight to the source and interviewed my niece Campbell Berg and her cousin Anna Snyder (my first cousin, once removed by marriage – yes! it’s complicated).

Teen super-volunteers Anna Snyder and Campbell Berg

These two young ladies were knowledgeable, gracious, and passionate about making change. Having developed and led youth programs in my past life, I wasn’t surprised. Despite how they are portrayed by the media, I’ve found young people to consistently buck stereotypes. Rather than being self-centered, overly dramatic, and disconnected, the youth I’ve known are engaged and concerned.

Anna and Campbell are no different. They have plenty of enthusiasm for making the world a better place and were happy to play a concrete role in doing so. In short, they are walking the talk.

To work successfully with youth and young adults, nonprofits might start by examining their own (mis)perceptions about the capacity of youth to serve. They must work actively against adultism and stereotypes that abound around youth at work. Further, they must educate themselves and their colleagues about what it means to form positive youth-adult partnerships.

To get started, it might help to understand where our teen volunteers are coming from. So, below is a rundown of my interview with Anna and Campbell, organized around the myths this conversation quickly dispelled.  

Get ready to be schooled.

5 Myths About Teen Volunteering Debunked

Myth #1: Younger Volunteers Have Minimal Volunteer Experience  

In fact, many of today’s teens have been volunteering since early childhood.  

At 15 years old, Campbell has been volunteering for about a decade. She has fond memories as far back as serving with her brownie troop in kindergarten. In middle school, she volunteered for Bright Life Buddies where she made friends with special needs kids and helped them feel included.

According to Campbell, “It’s the right thing to do. It’s what people should be doing to spread love and joy.”

Anna has been volunteering since she was nine or ten years old. One of her favorite volunteer experiences was with the Chow Food Bank at Christmas. More recently, she was part of the Helping Hands program at her middle school. Volunteers contribute ten hours per quarter “helping people, not for other people, but with people,” in Anna’s words.

In 8th grade, Anna received the Margie Shepherd Service Award for the largest number of volunteer hours contributed at her middle school. According to Anna, “it was kind of nice to be appreciated.” Anna was proud, not for the recognition, but for the impact she made; it reminded her of how much service meant to the community.

Myth #2: Young People Can’t Commit

In fact, many teen volunteers take on big projects and leadership roles and see them through.  

Campbell recounted one of her recent experiences as a volunteer Girl Scout counselor where she was responsible for leading thirteen feisty second and third graders, eight hours a day for five days in a row at a local summer camp.

I wasn’t easy, but she learned how to take care of kids and manage conflict. The experience opened her eyes to what volunteering could be, knowing and being with community.

In addition, Campbell has been an officer in Key Club for both her freshman and sophomore years and will likely continue.

Anna has also found volunteering helps her grow as a person and build confidence in setting boundaries in the adult world of work.

“I needed to stick up for myself” in the volunteering environment. She emphasized, “I can do what I am asked to so and do it well, but I also need to advocate for myself to be the best person I can be.”

Although we often think of youth as most appropriate for basic task related hours, teens are also interested and capable in managerial, organizational, or leadership roles. In other words, they can help at all levels.

Myth #3: Teen Volunteers Have the Same Needs as Adults

In fact, youth experience unique challenges and barriers that adults need to understand.  

As active middle school volunteers, I asked Anna and Campbell  what advice they would give volunteer coordinators. They had plenty to say about their needs, which challenge common perceptions about the youth capacity.  

They recommend that volunteer organizations …

  • “Understand that we want to make an impact with our volunteering.”
  • “They need to remember we are children. They expect a lot, but we also want to have some fun.” And that, they have more fun if they can volunteer with friends.
  • “We may goof around a bit, but we will get the job done.”
  • “Sometimes organizations don’t have enough people to manage the project, or even to check on how volunteers are doing, which puts stress on young people.” At times, staff need to distribute tasks better so that they can get completed. If there are too many diverse tasks, teen volunteers become overwhelmed.
  • “Recognize that we’re here because we choose to; I’m not just here because it looks good on my resume.”
  • “We can handle harder jobs; it might just take a little longer.”
  • “Be inviting and kind to us; don’t yell at us if you are stressed out. If you are stressed, we’ll be too intimidated to ask for help, so be friendly when you are giving directions.”

They also shared their joy in collaborating with and building relationships with adults who are also passionate about volunteerism and who are willing to take suggestions.

Myth #4: Teens Aren’t Interested in Volunteering

In fact, teen volunteers will tell you where their friends can be found.

When I asked for advice on volunteer recruitment, Anna and Campbell had plenty of great ideas about where to connect with interested young people. In fact, the number one reason they felt students don’t volunteer is because they simply don’t know what opportunities exist.

To help youth and organizations better connect, they recommend the following …

Get on Their Radar

  • Make your cause widely known to young people. Attend the club fairs held the first few weeks of school, host a table or event at lunch time, speak at a club meeting, or host a table or booth at a school football game.
  • Connect with the student webmasters and social media managers of school Key Clubs. They can post and share your open volunteer opportunities with their networks.
  • Visit schools in person and share information about our mission. Most students probably don’t know it exists. Help kids find a passion for volunteering by emphasizing that they can create something worthwhile and give something back.
  • Post opportunities well in advance on local volunteer center websites. Be clear you are open to teenagers.

Speak Their Language

  • Reach out to them through Twitter, Instagram, and email (to their teachers who will forward the info).
  • Similarly, create a page for existing student volunteers, with a calendar of upcoming events, the A-B-Cs for choosing a volunteer role, the number of shifts currently available. In their words, “where we need you and what we need you for.”
  • Be clear that students clubs are welcome, and encourage youth to bring friends, if it’s allowed. Offer signups online.
  • Feature your age limits and requirements for volunteers under age 18. Teenage volunteers often get discouraged because they are barred from contributing, so find a way to include them in ways that your leadership can get behind.  
  • Plan designated events for a certain group on a certain day. Then, students will know ahead of time they will be volunteering with others they know. They will appreciate that the opportunity was, in their words, “made for us.”

What Difference Will They Make and Why is it Fun?

  • Invite youth to the table for event planning. Let them have some say. They feel a big sense of accomplishment when they see the results of a project. According to Campbell, “It’s so rewarding to know you helped people. It makes you want to be more involved.”
  • Motivate young people by being open to new ideas and supportive of things they want to try. Help them by modelling the the way.
  • Set up web pages on your agency’s website, specifically for younger volunteers. Detail all of the things they might be able to do. If there are new things to try, they will keep coming back each year.
  • Make it sound interesting — give background info on the roles available and answer frequently asked questions.
  • Keep the call to action simple, outgoing, organized, friendly. Be appealing, “sugarcoat it a little.” (their words, not mine! LOL). Focus on the solid people who stay; make it about attracting the most dedicated.
  • Make volunteering and events fun for young people. Include: music, time for conversation, creative dress, decorations, pom poms, you name it. Talk with your existing teen volunteers to get ideas on how to make things more festive.

Reduce Barriers to Entry

  • To promote longer-term teen volunteering, get to know the students personally and make individual asks. Student clubs contribute time on a more short-term basis, but it may be possible to structure rotating shifts that different young people can fill (or “sponsor”) every month or every two weeks.
  • Be 100% organized.” Make sure someone greets each volunteer and that someone is available for a phone call or a text if they are in trouble. Better, use group texting to communicate with the team as a whole during their shift. Use an online signup tool that youth can check to see who is scheduled and if there was a last-minute replacement.
  • Update your communications platforms to use what youth use. Build a mailing list of young people and teachers. Send out a weekly email to update them on the agency’s volunteer needs. Use texting for signups and to remind students and teachers of the event the night before. In their words, “Stay in contact; they may not need you, but they do need someone to reach directly, if they have questions.”

According to Campbell and Anna, “If you have the opportunity to reach out to students, do it.  They want to get something on their resume. They want volunteer leadership titles listed.”

Myth #5: Underage Volunteers Don’t Care What’s on Your Website

In fact, young people need clear information, just like their adult counterparts.

Often adults assume young people are able to read between the lines about what’s needed to volunteer. But, when information is lacking or confusing, teen volunteers (like adult volunteers) simply won’t take action.

I asked Campbell and Anna to brainstorm a list of information they would like to see on the websites of volunteer organizations. It’s a fantastic list …

  • The backstory on the organization — its mission, how it helps, who it helps, how long it’s been around, what kinds of events it sponsors
  • Other opportunities for support, if a scheduling conflict exists that doesn’t allow them to volunteer, like providing snacks for fellow volunteers, etc.)
  • What to wear to your volunteer shift, including footwear
  • Directions and where to park (not everyone’s parents will drop them off, some will need to park)
  • What to expect — what you could do and what you will be doing
  • Specifics about the difference you will be making — what will be the result of their contributions of time and talent?

As you can see, youth aren’t clueless. They want to know details about their experience so they can prepare and, even more important, they want to invest their time in tasks that will make real change.

teen volunteering

Special Considerations When Working With Teen Volunteers

If nonprofits hope to be successful engaging teen volunteers, they also need to understand their special needs.

We assume young people are completely self-reliant, but that’s rarely the case. Teen volunteers are non “mini adults.” They often need a little more emotional support than their adult counterparts. And, it makes sense based on their stage of life.

From age 15 to 17, adolescents rapidly progress through stages for development. They begin to develop an awareness of their own personal strengths and weaknesses, start to develop reasoning skills, and are learning to find solutions to problems.

Volunteering can help teenagers advance their skills in a safe space, give them a voice, experience their own volition, and develop collaborative skills of compromise and boundary setting. Teens are also idealistic. Most importantly, teenagers are developing their sense of self and their place in the world.

Moreover, rather than miraculously arriving at full-fledged adulthood at age 18, young people go through a period of what’s called emerging adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 25. Even more recent, scholars have broken this period down into five separate stages.

One of the most important aspects of emerging adulthood is the exploration of work and worldviews. As young adults experience volunteering, they are setting the stage for how they will think about giving and their role as an adult.

Needless to say, youth and young adulthood are in complicated phases of life.

Teen Volunteers’ Biggest Needs

So, what does this mean for volunteer organizations?

I asked Anna and Campbell to share what they hoped volunteer managers would most understand about their biggest needs. Their views back up the research.

Here’s what they said:

  • “They need to remember that we are just kids, so be a little nicer.”
  • “Don’t get mad if we mess up; we want to fix it. We don’t respond well if someone yells. Be calm because they have our own anxiety to deal with.” (I expect this goes for adult volunteers, too!)
  • “Make volunteering an energizing and positive environment. Show how the help is making a difference. Make sure we know what we’re doing it for. It needs to be fun!”

So, taking a little extra time to meet them where they’re at, can help younger volunteers build their confidence in a supportive environment.

Why they Love Volunteering

Finally, I asked Campbell and Anna to share what they felt they gained from volunteering.  

  • “It makes me feel accomplished.” “Makes me feel good.” “Let’s me be myself.”
  • “It’s human nature to want to help people — to do it as a kid is empowering. So much is happening that is negative, it’s nice to be able to spread positivity.”
  • “It made me a more outgoing person. Sometimes I’m shy around strangers doing serious things, but it’s OK being shy. You can be accepted.”
  • “I met people I never would have met before.”
  • “I’m getting better at public speaking.” “I’m more willing to step out of my comfort zone.”

Their motivations are strikingly similar to those of adults. Altruism, personal enrichment, and learning new things are universal benefits for everyone.

Yes! You Can Help Grow Our NextGen Leaders

To wrap up our conversation, I asked Anna and Campbell where they saw themselves in ten years. They both had a bright view for their own futures and that of volunteering.  

“I want to have a family, bring up my kids as volunteers, and encourage others around them,” Anna shared. “There are problems in the world. We need to help,” Campbell added.

Finally, Campbell and Anna also acknowledged their own role in encouraging other youth to volunteer, “It’s good to help other kids do the right thing — to help younger generations volunteer.” Campbell urged her peers to “Be yourself — bring your own twist to it! Bring what you have to the table.”

They concluded, “Problems are a part of life, so we will always need volunteers. And, even though we don’t have a lot of time, we still want to help.”

Now, going over my notes from our chat, I remain inspired by young people’s potential to contribute to community change. If nonprofits are willing to meet youth like Anna and Campbell where they are at, they will reap the rewards of youth involvement.

In the end, everyone wins, and the next generation will emerge to become the active, engaged citizens this world needs.

Want to Learn More About How to Engage Students in Service?

Done miss our [Masterclass] Service-Learning Demystified: Practical Examples and Tools for Adding It to Your Volunteer Program.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 | 1-2pm EST / 10-11am PST

Can’t make the live webinar? You can still sign up and view it up to 14 days after the live event.

Save My Seat

Guest speaker, and community college faculty member, Tracy Farr will share award-winning examples and practice tips to help you partner with local schools and programs to get youth involved in your good cause.