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Joanne Fritz

Want Young Volunteers? Think Short, Sociable, and Fun

By October 30, 2012

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DoSomething.org's teens having fun at a recycling project.

DoSomething.org, the classy nonprofit that entices young people to volunteer and take social actions, released results last week of its survey of how young people volunteer. The conclusions should be taken seriously by nonprofits, if they want to really involve more young people.

The survey covered more than 4,000 young people ages 13 to 22 and asked about their motivations and preferences. Here are some of the findings:

  • It's all about peer influence. Having friends who volunteer regularly is the primary reason young people get involved. However, according to the survey, the influence of friends increases with age -- college students were most influenced by friends volunteering, while high school students were more influenced by parents.

  • The road to volunteering is often a nontraditional one. Many of those surveyed found their volunteer opportunities through their religious groups, clubs, friends, family or just independently. Religious youth groups are especially influential hubs of activity when it comes to young volunteers. Extracurricular activities such as sports and music also result in high levels of volunteering.

  • Teens love to socialize, and want their volunteering to be more like a party with friends. The survey found that young people who go to movies and the mall frequently also volunteer more -- perhaps proof of the importance of socializing on their behavior.

  • Young volunteers like to be with people their own age, but not the same gender. However, they do exhibit a gender gap, with boys preferring physical activities such as cleaning up the environment and helping younger children with sports; and girls more likely to help with the homeless, arts groups, or other groups of needy people.

  • They want short activities that allow a range of engagement. And those activities should be close to home and in familiar surroundings. Accessibility is key. For instance, the study suggests that needing a car to get to a volunteer opportunity could be a major drawback. Also lack of time is the biggest impediment to volunteering for young people.

  • Young people are very successful at fundraising. Peer-to-peer fundraising is the most common form of activity for young volunteers, with 38% participating. Such activities take advantage of their strengths -- social networking and facility with technology.

  • Private school students were 25% more likely to volunteer than students from public schools; wealthier young people volunteered more than those from low-income families (70% vs 44%). The study suggests that public school kids from lower income families are not asked as often to volunteer and that they would be most interested in helping their immediate communities.

  • Young people who text often via mobile phones volunteered more than non-texters or those without mobile phones. Technology seems to encourage socialization, which then leads to more volunteering.

  • Young people who volunteer are happier. They scored 24% higher on a life satisfaction scale.

The message for nonprofits? Make it easy for young people to raise money through their peer networks; make volunteering fun and social; recruit young volunteers through their existing relationships; and offer short volunteer opportunities that run the gamut from lightly involved to more serious engagement.

Young people seem to self-organize and follow their peers. They are not likely to walk into your organization and start volunteering. You'll need to have a separate, nontraditional program to find young volunteers and get them involved. Go where these young people are...their extracurricular activities, sports activities, special interest groups.

Honor their interest in helping people or animals directly, and lighten up on the rules. They may show up late, leave early, and seem self-conscious. While older volunteers often relish the limelight, many young people prefer to be anonymous or even help from a distance rather than up close.

Show you understand their concerns and offer incentives that match. What keeps these young people up at night is worry about getting into college and how to pay for it. If possible, offer volunteer opportunities that help with college admissions.

Do read the complete report. It is full of nuances that you've never considered, and there are specific tips that will help you craft meaningful volunteer experiences for young people.

What has been your experience with young volunteers? What seems to work; what doesn't? Any tips you can pass on to other charities?

Read more about young volunteers and other generations too:

Photo: DoSomething.org's teens having fun at a recycling project.

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