Seven tips for a win/win youth volunteer service project
Global Youth Services Day is upon us (April 17-19) which brings up the question that I was recently asked in a conference, “Can you give us any hints about working with youth volunteers? It takes so much time to train them for a ‘one-shot’ event. It frankly takes more effort than it’s worth.”
This is an honest question asked out of frustration by busy directors of volunteers who are overwhelmed by recruiting, training, and coaching their hundreds of volunteers. A van load of teens are dropped off at a local food bank and the busy director has to quickly train and organize a gang of teenagers who in many cases don’t even want to be there—they are merely fulfilling a requirement.
Here are seven quick tips to make the experience a win/win. As you read the seven tips, see if at least one of them might help you engage a group of apathetic or hyper-active high school volunteers.
First Tip: Plan and execute a team huddle to kick off the experience.
How do you awaken a passion in the heart of a teenager for what you are all about? Savvy leaders have a team huddle—a brief meeting where they talk about their cause and what they are doing to accomplish that mission. They often show a short 3- 5 minute video, have a testimonial of someone who has been served, and always explain volunteer and career opportunities. Don’t neglect this 15-minute session at the beginning of the event. It is essential. Keep it short, moving and exciting. And make sure it is quarterbacked by someone who is a dynamic communicator.
Second Tip: Prepare and develop exciting and interactive training.
I spent most of February this year in Uganda, Africa, as part of a team of 13 volunteers. Three members of our team were teenagers (this picture shows our three high school seniors with their new friend Dennis and his thumb piano). But one of the keys was the training, both before and during the event. We had required reading, team building exercises, and on-line lectures from a “Great Courses” class. On the trip we met each evening after dinner for a debrief and more instruction on African culture.
The leader of the team told us at our first of five 2-hour training sessions that he liked having teenagers on these Africa trips because they motivated the adults to be an example and not complain about mosquito nets, the hot weather, the sleeping conditions, the long 10-hour drive up country in unconditioned vans, and days of eating rice, goat and beans. And it worked. Our teenagers, who were sometimes silly and kept us laughing, were tireless and positive the whole eighteen days. I can’t imagine a trip without them.
Third Tip: Pick mentors for your youth volunteers.
Many college students and young adults love working with teens, so look to this generation of 20-somethings who have a passion for adolesents. Turn them loose with your youth volunteers. Many millennials are not getting married until their late 20’s and early 30’s today. These young professionals and college students don’t have family responsibilities and can be challenged to invest in the lives of high school students. When Jonathan, co-author of The New Breed, was in youth ministry, he recruited most of his volunteer staff from local community colleges, universities and the young singles department of churches. It was from his successful recruiting of millennials that we developed the “dating method” of recruiting.
Fourth Tip: Develop long-term partnerships.
Partnerships are essential. In the 60s I used to recruit, train, and mobilize teams of high school volunteers—yes, I was in my mid-20’s and didn’t know any better. The key was the long-term partnerships that I developed over the years. I sent volunteer youth teams to serve in the impoverished areas of the U.S. and all over the world. But in every situation, I had a partner organization that worked with me.
Why are partnerships essential? These organizations understood the unique culture where these teenagers would volunteer, whether a local food bank or a third world setting. The organization had established an effective presence so that we were not walking in as some foreigner hoping to fix these people. We were able to be servants, not tourists or American know-it-alls.
I wanted to make sure that the organization knew how to value these teenagers. Over the ten years that I managed these youth volunteer teams, I discovered the organizations that were great partners and those that weren’t. I had some failures along the way, but the failures taught me the necessity of key partnerships.
Fifth Tip: Think of investing in youth as an important part of your calling as a director of volunteers.
Never underestimate the potential of the young person who walks into your facility. You never know what kind of impact that person will have in feeding the hungry, raising money for medical research, tutoring, making a wish come true, mentoring, protecting our natural resources, sponsoring a child, or giving a meaning to life.
Sometimes we need to expand our perspective. Instead of thinking,
- “Am I really going to trust our mission to a bunch of hard-to-manage high school students?”
Rethink your attitude to,
- “Investing in the lives of high school students is an important task in accomplishing the mission of what we do as directors of volunteers.”
Let’s face it, we are part of a network of leaders who are changing the world, and developing young leaders to help us is part of our global mission. Let’s not forget the big picture.
My granddaughter Ashley, who is a senior in high school, recently told me about a day she spent stocking shelves at the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services when she was in the eighth grade. She now has a vision for what they are doing and has not forgotten it. I don’t know who the person was who handled that group of hyperactive, loud and crazy eighth graders, but I know one teenager who never will forget the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. Now as a senior, Ashley is an active volunteer; every week she mentors a young high school student, she spent her spring break volunteering on a youth team in Watts, California, and she was also one of the three teenagers on our Africa trip. Those early experiences provided a foundation for future service.
Sixth Tip: Give these young people the same chance someone gave you.
“How many of you served in a leadership position at a young age?” When I ask that question in my workshops, a majority of the leaders in the room raise their hands. Then I ask the follow-up question, “How many of you made mistakes as a young leader?” Most of us are raising our hands and snickering as we recall some of the crazy and outlandish things we attempted as young leaders. We were full of passion and new ideas and often created chaos. But someone gave us the opportunity to lead—and fail— along the way.
We need to give the younger generation the same opportunities. Give them responsibilities such as leading games for children or shopping for supplies. Most teenagers say they want independence, yet they want to be coached. The teenagers on our Uganda team responded enthusiastically to the many responsibilities that our leader gave them, such as preparing and leading games for children. Our leader took the three teenagers out to lunch and gave them these tasks. After we got home, he took them out to a local ice cream parlor for a debrief session.
Seventh Tip: And finally remember that teen volunteering is very much like a high school teen party.
Ninety three percent of teens say they want to volunteer, but a far smaller percentage of young people actually do volunteer. This Index exposes why some teens and college students volunteer and why some don’t, and gives insight into how to close that gap. We are sharing this report externally because we believe young people are a fantastic untapped resource. They are creative, passionate, and frustrated by the problems grown-ups have created and/or been unable to fix. We hope this Index inspires organizations, schools, companies, etc to unlock the power of young people. (Index on Volunteering, executive summary p. 2)
But after an analysis of youth volunteers with statistics and practical hints about working with teenage volunteers, they admit that high school students are still teens and leave us with this realistic caution in their one-page summary.
For teens who volunteer, social change can be a bonus. Think of volunteering as a microcosm of a teen’s social world. Teens want to 1) hang out with friends, 2) connect through mobile technology (the average teen now exchanges over 5,000 texts per month), and 3) avoid commitment. Simply, volunteering isn’t very different from everything else in their lives.
In fact, it’s very much like a high school party: teens often decide to go last minute, avoid showing up early, and almost never stay till the end. Being first or last isn’t cool. Volunteering, like everything else, is about blending in, making friends, and having a good time. Teens are mobile, flexible, and most importantly, social. They expect the same from their volunteer activities. If you want to engage teens in volunteering, tell them they’ll actually be able to change something. And, more importantly, tell them their friends will save them a seat. (Index on Volunteering, p. 31)
We need to remember that they’re still kids, and we need to be flexible and have fun with them.
Your Youth Volunteer Best Practices
If you have been successful working with teenage volunteers to make this experience mutually beneficial, please send me your success stories. Our readers would love hear of some of the best practices from those of you who are in the trenches. And I will share them with others when asked this question.