How to Empower Youth Volunteers

Guest post by Andrea McArthur

Empowering youth volunteers
The Edible Schoolyard at Hunter’s Point—a core program at Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco .

Today’s participation climate is flooded with volunteer opportunities for youth. They can join various campus and community clubs or councils tasked with raising awareness, conducting advocacy, or fundraising for large pockets of vulnerable populations around the world.

Popular examples of organizations engaging large groups of youth in this type of volunteering include Invisible Children, Free the Children, and Do This type of volunteering is called indirect services, as the volunteer-to-client relationship is not peer to peer, but stretched across a vast network of stakeholders including educators, policy makers, the media and others.

It’s About Power

What makes this type of volunteerism so attractive and successful? I explored this question and others about youth engaged in indirect volunteering in my Masters research and will elaborate on one of the major themes: Power.

Indirect volunteering is highly empowering. Youth find indirect volunteering empowering because this type of volunteering allows them to educate, influence, and motivate others to do something about their issue of interest. This often involves starting “by youth, for youth” initiated campaigns where youth volunteers are in a position of leadership, educating key stakeholders in their service community.

The Other Side of the Coin

There are also unfortunately a few characteristics of indirect volunteering that are dis-empowering for youth. Many of these characteristics exist at the organizational level and are indicative of bureaucratic and resource related challenges.

Youth leaders often feel taken advantage of by large volumes of youth volunteers recruited for their cause who demonstrate considerably less commitment to the service initiative. On the other hand, youth who join indirect service projects to expand their leadership skills often feel overshadowed by other youth volunteers who seem to naturally have strong leadership qualities.

Additional factors such as organizational hierarchy, volunteer turnover, competition from youth groups doing similar work, the complexity of indirect service work and an apathetic public can sometimes make indirect service work dis-empowering for youth volunteers.

One of the biggest barriers that can dis-empower youth engaged in indirect volunteering is role ambiguity. The absence of a “volunteer to client” delivery model for this type of volunteering means that youth often do not see all of the outcomes of their work in their intended service community. They must infer the outcomes of their work from the stakeholders connecting them to their clients in their service network.

Showing Impact to Empower

There are a few recommendations for improving role clarity, as youth feel more empowered when the outcomes of their work are clearer. Some youth recommend that volunteering internationally in their clients’ communities makes them feel empowered as they can directly see and clearly articulate the outcomes of their work.

Charity Village highlights the pros and cons of temporary international volunteer opportunities in their article on “backpacktivism.” Recommendations for working directly with, engaging, and empowering service communities abroad are provided.

Organizations can help youth better infer the outcomes of their work with reflection-based evaluation after an indirect service project. In a recent blog, I offered a sample survey and framework that helps youth identify all of the stakeholders in their indirect service network and anticipate all of the outcomes of their work together. Through reflection, youth can create a narrative that empowers them to make the outcomes of their indirect volunteering clearer.

Youth can feel empowered about the outcomes of their work through photovoice. Photovoice allows populations in a service community to construct a photo narrative of their struggles and triumphs as they see it from their own eyes. It also helps the volunteer network engage the service community with the challenges they face exactly as they see it, and to see images of the outcomes of their work. Plan Canada has a terrific example in their slideshow of media projects that empower youth for social change.

Empowerment also often comes from inspiration through peer motivation, especially for youth in the indirect service arena. Canada’s youth-initiated Count Me In conference inspires youth through motivational presentations from engaging youth leaders and big actors. Following the conference, the youth audience then attends the “Count Me In After Party Charity Marketplace” where they “mingle with charity representatives and find community service opportunities that are right for them.”

Indirect volunteering opportunities empower youth to engage vast audiences to affect global change. While youth can run into barriers to their engagement, such as role ambiguity, there are many strategies such as reflection, photovoice, peer motivation and where possible, travel, that can ensure all people within the network of an indirect service project are empowered by the work.

Andrea McArthur is a Research Consultant and Program Coordinator for the nonprofit sector. She has recently completed her Masters of Social Work, including a thesis about youth volunteers providing indirect services. Read more from Andrea at the Volunteerguru’s Blog.