LEADERSHIP | Youth Volunteering: Let’s Make Space for our Young People Again!

publication date: Nov 2, 2023
author/source: Mélanie Valcin

Volunteers are the heart of United for Literacy. Each year, over 1,600 volunteers give thousands of hours to ensure no one is left behind when it comes to literacy. They tutor math, reading, and writing; read stories; help with special events; and much more. Youth (15 to 30) comprise 68% of the volunteer base of United for Literacy. These volunteers are often university students from all four corners of the country.

The current landscape

As we recover from COVID-19, we realize that we need to try new ways of recruiting and supporting young volunteers. We have 125 years of providing meaningful volunteering opportunities for Canadian youth. But what worked in the past doesn't always work today. We are always searching for new and innovative ways to connect with youth and inspire them to volunteer. I am joined in this exploration of youth volunteerism by two colleagues: Megan Conway, CEO of Volunteer Canada, and Franca Gucciardi, CEO of the McCall MacBain Foundation.

According to Volunteer Canada, the impact of COVID-19 continues to have a huge impact on our country. Our communities are being tested as needs grow. At the same time, organizations face a shortage of volunteers1 and are struggling to meet their community's needs.2 Canada’s youth have the potential to build an inclusive and resilient future. People in their 20s and 30s today are tomorrow's leaders, and they are finding ways to solve our most pressing issues.

People under 30 make up over 40% of Canada's population. We know this generation is more civically engaged, digitally connected, and educated than previous. Being active in the community helps young people gain meaningful experience. Volunteering assists youth as they: gain skills, meet new people of different ages and experiences, and access new opportunities and possibilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way youth work, learn, and show up in the community. The increase in online learning and decrease in high school community involvement requirements have likely led to youth choosing not to volunteer in a formal way. That said, there are news ways to get involved in casual or informal ways. We lack current national data on the impacts of COVID-19 on youth participation and engagement, however, Megan Conway notes the following historical patterns:

Volunteering Rates – Formal and Informal

In 2018, youth aged 15-30 contributed to 23% of all volunteer hours across the country. People born between 1996 and 2012 (often referred to as Generation Z, iGen, or Gen Z) were more engaged than other generations in both formal and informal activities (43%). Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1995) engaged less than other generations (33%).3 Youth prefer short-term or episodic volunteering opportunities to long-term commitments.4

Formal Volunteering

In a 2018 report, youth 15-30 had the highest rates of formal volunteer engagement (46%). Rates dropped in relation to age. Common forms of formal volunteering for this age group were:

• Organizing events (21%)
• Raising money on behalf on an organization (17%)
• Teaching, educating, or mentoring (15%)
• Collecting, serving, or delivering food (10%)
• Sitting on a committee or board (10%)
Youth volunteers were most likely to have formal engagement with social services (24%), education and research (22%), sports and recreation (18%), and religious organizations (16%)

Informal Volunteering

In the same report, Gen Z (78%) and Millennials (77%) were more likely to be informal volunteers than other generations. 74% gave direct help to people through activities like

• Housework and home maintenance,
• Shopping,
• Driving to stores or appointments,
• Paperwork,
• Health-related or personal care, or
• Teaching, coaching, or tutoring.

30% took part in community improvement activities:

• Maintaining a park or public space,
• Participating in public meetings,
• Sharing information,
• Coordinating a group or event,
• Developing an economic or social project,
• Engaging in online awareness-building activities (online petitions, crowdfunding, hackathons, etc.)

Organizations of Interest

In 2020, youth 15-30 were more likely to participate or volunteer in sports or recreational organizations and cultural, educational, or hobby organizations. Women in this age group were more likely to engage in civic organizations than men.5

Priority Areas

The 2021 State of Youth Report named the priority issues for Canadian youth:

• Truth and Reconciliation
• The environment and climate action
• Health and wellness
• Leadership and impact
• Employment
• Innovation, skills, and learning

Youth are more likely to volunteer with organizations rooted in these areas. For example, in 2018, youth spent more volunteer time working with environmental organizations than older generations.

Today, youth in Canada are ready and willing to take part:

• 74% feel it is important to be active in their community.
• 78% want to learn more about making a positive difference.6

Furthermore, the message used to invite youth to engage is critical. Terms like “community mobilization” and “community care” are more resonant than “volunteering.” Youth are also drawn to less formal, grassroots involvement that aligns with their values.7 These trends tell us to adapt the way we talk about volunteering. We need to find new ways to mobilize youth and be clear about how their work will make an impact.

Franca Gucciardi adds, “Many organizations offer the opportunity to fulfill high school service requirements. While this is an entry point, we must give youth more credit than this. All people want to feel they have something meaningful to give to others. Youth want to see how their experience feeds the bigger mission and vision of an organization. They want to see how they're doing good for the world. And they want to be part of a community that makes them feel positive and optimistic.

Removing barriers and enhancing volunteering opportunities

It’s important that all youth have equal access to meaningful opportunities. To do this, we must address barriers to volunteering. This includes:

• Flexible schedules, online and in person
• Providing transportation stipends
• Strong, continuous training and support
• Tools (including equipment, if possible)

“When we talk about barriers to volunteering for youth, people often talk about youth from underserved communities and seem to imply that they are volunteering less,” explains Gucciardi. “It’s true that these youth are facing specific barriers that we need to dismantle. But it is also true that youth from underserved communities are deeply involved and want to see positive change happen around them. It’s our job to look around, see who is missing, and find ways to seek out youth. We can’t wait for youth to apply to our formal volunteer postings. It’s up to us to meet them where they are and give them the chance to join a community where their voice will be deeply valued, and their work fully appreciated.

Next week: Since 2020, United for Literacy has been working to respond to the needs of young people when it comes to volunteering. This has required changes to volunteer management, requirements, and support practices.

If you are a young person who wants to make a lasting impact on your community, please join us. Working with others is a chance to grow as a person while you help to transform the lives of those you serve.

Mélanie Valcin is the President and CEO for United for Literacy and has been working in the areas of education, social innovation, youth mobilization and community development for the past 20 years. Mélanie currently sits on the Board of Directors of Le Devoir in Quebec. She also volunteers with Groupe 3737, an incubator for entrepreneurs from minority groups. In 2022, Melanie was named Black Changemaker by the CBC. She is also a member of Montreal's Groupe des Trente, which aims at promoting diversity in governance. Mélanie firmly believes that education is the key to achieving social equity and prosperity.


[1] CBC News. (2023, January 24). Critical lack of volunteers putting Canadian non-profit services at risk: Volunteer Canada. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/volunteer-shortage-caanada-1.6723348

[2] Lasby, D., & Barr, C. (2021). Imagine Canada’s Sector Monitor: The uneven impact of the pandemic on Canadian charities. https://imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/Sector-Monitor-The-uneven-impact-of-the-pandemic-on- Canadian-charities.pdf

[3] Hahmann, T. (2021). Volunteering Counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018 (Insights on Canadian Society). Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2021001/article/00002-eng.htm

[4] Vancouver Foundation. (2019). A Snapshot of Community Participation in BC.

[5] Arriagada, P., Khanam, F., & Sano, Y. (2022). Chapter 6: Political participation, civic engagement and caregiving among youth in Canada. In Portrait of Youth in Canada: Data Report. Statistics Canada.  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/42-28-0001/2021001/article/00006-eng.htm

[6] Bechard, M. (2022, November 23). Understanding Youth and Child Civic Engagement In Canada. Rideau Hall Foundation. https://rhf-frh.ca/understanding-youth-and-child-civic-engagement-in-canada/

[7] Apathy is Boring, & Environics. (2022). Canadian Youth - A Social Values Perspective on Identity, Life Aspirations and Engagement Of Millennials And Gen Z.

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