Put young volunteers in charge and prepare to be amazed

publication date: Sep 14, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
This article first appeared in the June 30, 2009 issue of Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy, part of Hilborn's Premium Leadership Service.

Youth culture, with its ever changing landscape of what is cool and what is not, can be a perilous place to play, says Meal Exchange executive director
Dave Kranenburg.

He knows what works with youth. In fact, he regularly puts the success of an entire campaign, Trick or Eat, into the hands of young volunteers, he told the Humber Initiative on Philanthropy.

Trick or Eat is a Hallowe’en food drive. Costumed youth get to be little kids again, going door to door collecting non-perishable food items for three hours on October 31st.

Youth engagement part of mission

The campaign starts in September with volunteer recruitment, online registration, maintenance of websites for each location, distributing flyers and putting out community notices, fundraising online, arranging a kick-off speaker, figuring out how to transport volunteers and food, coordinating with the local food bank, coordinating risk management, thanking volunteers, generating press coverage and reporting to the national office.

How many of you, he asked the audience, would be willing to entrust all of this to a 21-year-old? A 17-year-old? Yet Trick or Eat is successful because Meal Exchange is mission-driven to trust youth with those responsibilities.

You can make youth engagement a core component of your campaign, your department, your chapter or your entire organization. Effective youth engagement, Kranenburg declares, is not about seeing them as bodies, as a means to an end. It is seeing the development of their leadership as the end itself.

How to put them in charge

Youth leaders need the freedom to be creative, to take ownership over the campaign. Trust them with that, support them in doing it, and you’ll seldom be disappointed. Give them the minimum specifications for the campaign, which in the case of Trick or Eat are volunteer recruitment, community awareness and planning logistics for the night.  Give them all the tools to succeed – logos, posters, pamphlets, training, connection to peers and best practices. Give them some ideas using the tools and leave the rest to them.

If a young volunteer proposes an unworkable idea, don`t just overrule it. Take the time to explain. Kranenburg recalls a student who wanted to get shot with paint balls (without body armour) to raise money for Trick or Eat. Once he explained why he and the insurance company wouldn’t be comfortable with that, the youth accepted it.

Measure leadership growth

Externally, Trick or Eat reports numbers on food and money raised, locations organized and youth participating. And those numbers are impressive – 150 student campaign organizers, 6,500 volunteers, and food donations worth $400,000 or 160,000 meals.

Internally they measure success differently, with three surveys on the impact of coordinating the campaign on their volunteers’ leadership skills. And through one survey delivered at 3 a.m. on November 1st they gauge the impact of participation on their volunteers’ notions of hunger and community.

The benefits of youth engagement go far beyond bringing you short-term hard work, Kranenburg says. It creates vocal, visible supporters online and offline. It gives you a pipeline to fresh, creative, relevant ideas for your campaigns. And it creates future donors, employees and champions for your organization.

Meaningful recognition for youth

Youth leaders aren’t always looking for recognition. But if you’re serious about their development, then you should be looking for ways to give it.

Do the things that will help them stick out from the crowd when it comes time to find a job, Kranenburg advises. Write reference letters for them. Give them leadership certificates. Write thank-you letters to them and letters of recognition to community leaders.

He is especially proud of a video the organization created to thank its participants and highlight their achievements. Youth, of course, do the talking and thanking. They are young, he concludes. Speak their language.

What makes youth volunteers different?

The only difference, Kranenburg says, is that we call them youth.  They are every bit as capable of organizing a campaign as an adult volunteer. For him, the secret to successful youth engagement is being comfortable entrusting an entire campaign to a 21-year-old.

In short, he says, the secret to engaging youth is treating them like the future of your organization.

Watch the video. For more information,www.mealexchange.com

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