Do young people want to volunteer?

One of the many myths about volunteering is that most volunteers are older people—generally people think of retirees volunteering at the local op-shop!

Of course that isn’t the whole picture. The highest rates of volunteering are to be found in the 45-54 age bracket, but that doesn’t mean that younger people don’t, or don’t want to, volunteer.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that of all the people who volunteered in 2010, 9.4% were between 18 and 24. As almost 6.1 million people volunteered in that year, that means well over half a million young people volunteered. Overall, more than 27% of young people volunteered in 2010.

Young people do indeed want to volunteer, and are an important cohort. As might be expected, volunteering for groups related to sport and recreation was the most popular choice, with over 183,000 volunteering. But they aren’t the only group to prefer those kinds of events—all volunteers up to the age of 65 show a preference for sport and recreation.

Young people also volunteered strongly for religious groups, and almost half volunteered at least once a week. Most also stuck to one organisation. This points to an important point about youth volunteers—one of the reasons they volunteer is to be with friends, which means they are often influenced to volunteer by their peer groups.

So how do groups encourage young people to volunteer? Recent research by Volunteering Tasmaniafound that young people value skill development and like to feel they are genuinely making a contribution, but that there were some important practical factors that helped them engage.

Young people needed roles that reflected their lifestyles, which generally could not accommodate regular commitments, and they often found transport a problem. The research also found that most groups didn’t use social media platforms like Facebook enough—the younger generation looks first and foremost at the web to gain information and communicate, and any organisation serious about attracting young volunteers needs to connect with them there.

Offline, young people are very engaged with their peers, so having young volunteer ambassadors and making personal approaches through peer networks, schools and families was also essential—backed by a strong web presence, a short and easy application process and a personal point of contact within the organisation.

Once engaged in volunteering, the research also found that young people overwhelmingly felt that they would continue to volunteer in later years, so engaging volunteers positively while they are young paves the way for an ongoing ‘volunteering habit’.

Perhaps the question is not whether young people want to volunteer, but whether organisations are doing the right things to facilitate young people’s volunteering.

Unpaid does not mean unprofessional

It’s all too easy to judge a person’s ‘worth’ by the fee or the salary they command, and to make assumptions about what their pay says about their professional skills or talents.

Unfortunately this means that volunteers can often be perceived as lacking in all sorts of areas – lacking in skills, in experience, professionalism and even basic value beyond being a ‘pair of hands’.

But consider this: statistics show that people in full or part time work are more likely to volunteer than those who are not. People in middle age have higher rates of volunteering than other age groups.

Translated, this means that volunteers are often mature, employed people – people with plenty of professional skills and experiences to offer. The reasons most people give for volunteering—to make a difference to their community and feel a sense of purpose—also suggest a strong motivation to share those skills.

Added to that, many people volunteer in order to gain new skills and experiences. A volunteer program that trains its participants well (with or without a formal qualification) is more successful not simply because the volunteers ‘do what they’re supposed to do’, but because the volunteers can deliver a highly professional service.

A professional, well-organised and well-trained volunteer force is not just essential to the success of the event, it is also deeply satisfying for the volunteers themselves and of enormous value to the organisers, who can look forward to continued high engagement from skilled and enthusiastic volunteers.

Volunteers genuinely want to share their knowledge and skills, and also want to help organisers to make their events successful. So it’s also very important to communicate with volunteers, recognise their efforts and provide ways that they can feed back their experiences. Being heard is also a win-win for the volunteer and the organiser, because the volunteer feels that their experience and insights are valued, and the organiser of course can get the benefits of those insights by using them to improve future events.

Great volunteer programs don’t just deliver great events, they also develop, employ and reward the professionalism of the volunteers.

Volunteering may not be a traditional economic exchange of money for labour, but it is nonetheless a value exchange—volunteers give their valuable skills and time, and in exchange they deserve positive experiences, recognition and personal reward.