February 24, 2013
Just two months into the year and already there are plenty of agendas being talked up, plenty of rising anxiety levels in community sector organisations, accompanied by what sounds like, and feels like, a sinking lid for programmes and practice. Paying for criminal checks on volunteers, getting the charities legislation reviewed and the prospect of new contracting and funding arrangements through ‘social bonds’ are just three of the big picture issues. I shall leave them to other platforms for the moment.
My matter for this week is not as the headline suggests, the community gardeners. Nor am I presenting yet another promo for best practice volunteer recruitment. The niggle at the back of my head is the continuing interest in courting Gen X and Y to engage in volunteering, as though it was a new and untapped resource for organisations short on volunteers.
I wrote about Youth Volunteering a bit over a year ago, being enthusiastic about all the evidence of increases in young people’s involvement. And they continue to be involved, even as part of whole family volunteering. More recently Volunteering New Zealand has published a paper on UN Youth NZ; Labour Party youth are on a roll this year to connect with local community groups; in January United Nations announced a trust fund to support Youth Volunteerism. There is no end to the ways young people can be involved in their communities, and you can see this even at early school years when class projects open children’s minds to community and community needs.
Here is my ‘yes but’ question:
Are we cultivating volunteers or promoting the cult of youth?
The rise in youth volunteering is capturing attention at a time when retirees, the ‘baby-boomer’ generation, could be expected to join the ranks of volunteers in droves. They are not, for various reasons: they continue in paid employment; they are full-time care-givers for grandchildren; they are travelling the world and ‘pursuing other interests’. Yet there are still enough older people – and we can see them working in our communities every day throughout the year – to be a significant proportion in volunteer statistics. This is the expanding age group that is proving such a burden on governments and age-support organisations throughout the western world. To which I would say: “if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them”.
My plea is for inclusion, for all population groups. I am thinking of skills that older people can offer from their employment experience. I am thinking of tolerance and acceptance of difference that comes with age and experience, along with a raft of communication and relationship skills. Of course they do not have these skills on their own, and nor is the wisdom of age always informed by tolerance. But neither do young people hold all the answers to achieving organisation goals through volunteering.
Dissonance between age and youth is as old as time. This is not the time to pitch one in favour of the other. Volunteering could be the much-needed space where young and older New Zealanders come together to learn from each other and to appreciate the perspectives of different generations. That’s where leadership for the 21st century could come from.
Disclaimer: Please do not think I am carrying personal angst in writing the above. By conventional dating I belong to the Silent Generation, those who never spoke out, who accepted everything thrown at them. I like to think I have moved with my times.
PS: Comment per email sent by Salle-Ann Ehms:
As always, your blog is very thought-provoking. In the light of inclusiveness, I thought that you’d appreciate this photo I took last week-end. It’s not the best shot but I love the contrasts; youth-aged,
caucasian-asian, able-disabled, but what I most love is that none of those things are really relevant, the caring is palpable.
December 4, 2011
“Get them while they’re young” is a line from the musical Evita, interposed on a paean to ‘Santa Evita’ sung by a chorus of children. It is also a line spun in a religious context and a strategy exploited by many a commercial and consumer enterprise.
So I should not be surprised to learn if you have not been exposed to volunteering by the time you are 15 you are not likely to get engaged as a volunteer either now or later. That bit of hearsay gave me pause to think about my own history of volunteering and where it came from.
These days the evidence shows more and more young people are volunteering, in all sorts of spheres, and they are not always following the model of their parents as I did.
In Australia youth volunteering (aged 18-24) doubled in the ten years to 2006, to 32%. A US report (2005) found the rate for ages 12-18 was 55%, more than one and a half times the adult rate of 29%. In England only 24% of 16-24 year olds are engaged in formal volunteering, according to a 2009 review. The rate in New Zealand for the year ending March 2009 was just 27%, for the age group 15-24 years.
Statistics such as these offer bald information and clearly international comparisons on this data would be odious. What needs to be noted is the increasing interest by youth in volunteering: in New Zealand this age group is anecdotally claimed to be the fastest rising volunteer demographic. Over the past six months Volunteer Wellington finds the number of volunteer seekers aged 14-29 have outnumbered other age groups more than 2:1, and 50% of these volunteers were students.
Alongside this burgeoning volunteer population there is a welter of related research, conferences, and reviews, national and international. There are presentations from young people themselves on what they expect, where their interests lie and how they want to be engaged. There is also an ongoing blog written by young people for young volunteers.
They come with different strengths and expectations from older generations. Being technologically-gifted they expect all information and communication to be available on-line. Sometimes they prefer to work in groups or to be involved in time-limited, task-focused activities. They want opportunities to get work-related experience, something to put on their CVs. Yet they can also have altruistic reasons for volunteering, and a sense of civic responsibility.
The volunteer work of young people can be as varied as programmes that engage older people. A study on student involvement showed nearly half worked as a mentor, coach, or counsellor with youth. Sports and cultural activities attracted a significant proportion, and close behind were health and emergency services.
For the leader of volunteers and the manager of a volunteer programme here is another dynamic to add to the business of harnessing the skills and energies brought by volunteers to the organisation. Be warned, youth volunteers will not tolerate being patronised. There is much to admire in their enthusiasm and commitment, and in their achievements. Organisations in New Zealand, like Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), CanTeen (supporting teenage cancer patients) and YouthLine, are obvious standouts, yet young people will be found volunteering in a whole lot of other places as well.
There is much to encourage and entice youth volunteers at Volunteering Otago, and a really great Wish List at Volunteering Hawkes Bay. What we want, they say, is: Flexibility, Experience, Incentives, Legitimacy and Variety; accessing volunteering needs to be Easy; like everyone else Appreciation and Support is important; and most of all we love to Laugh! Go check out the details, and find how engaging young people as volunteers is pretty much the same as for other populations.
Get them while they are young, to open opportunities for learning skills and about self, about community, about service, and about the life-long gains that volunteering can bring. Better still, get them to show you a thing or two about different ways of volunteering and new approaches to existing volunteer programmes.
[If you think I have tossed in too many hyperlinks here, it is simply an indication of the wealth of material and information available on engaging young people in your organisation.]
And have a great day celebrating the International Volunteers’ Day on December 5, whatever your age!