Engaging young volunteers: What motivates youth to give their time?

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Sheliza Kassam is a 15-year-old high school student. When she graduates next year she’s hoping to study optometry and then open her own practice. But career plans only satisfy so much. What she really loves to do is volunteer. She started on the path of giving back at the ripe young age of five, when she volunteered at her mosque and held the title of Spark in the Girl Guides.

Today Kassam is expertly balancing at least five volunteer roles (to be honest, I lost count) along with her studies. Though her level of volunteerism would certainly rival that of most of her peers, many young people are giving back these days. And we wanted to know why.

Peer pressure

What lies within the beating heart of a young volunteer? What is it that inspires them to move, to act, to help? Those and other questions formed the basis of an unprecedented survey south of our border by DoSomething.org. Polling over 4,300 young people across the US, the results were somewhat surprising.

What struck the pollsters most was the importance of social peer pressure on volunteerism. “For a young person, having friends that volunteer regularly is the primary factor influencing a young person’s volunteering habits. It matters more than things like wanting to help improve his local community or working on an issue he cares about deeply,” the report stated. “In fact, for determining volunteering behavior, whether or not a young person’s friends volunteer regularly is nearly twice as important as having the ability to work on an issue he cares about deeply.”

We wondered: can the same hold true for the young in Canada? Take Kassam. Were the actions of her friends the primary influence on her behavior? Doesn’t look like it. On her own volition, at the age of 12, Kassam got involved with Calgary-based Youth Central, an organization that, among others things, allows youth to sign-up for volunteer opportunities online, serve on steering committees and voice their opinions to business leaders and politicians. That’s how she eventually got involved in the Mayor’s Youth Council, a committee she’s highly invested in.

She’s also a volunteer speech coach and is hoping to join Kids Cancer Care Society after witnessing a friend get diagnosed with cancer. “I want to help kids going through that,” she says. Not necessarily words you’d hear from someone dependent on peer influence. “I take initiative,” she affirms. I used to be super shy,” she admits. “But I learned how to adapt to situations through volunteering. And taking risks is a big thing too. If I didn’t do all these things, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

What influences you?

So what are Kassam’s biggest inspirations? One is religion. A proud Muslim, she tries her best to live up to its values of volunteerism inside and outside her community. As for the second, it’s her mom, a big proponent of giving back. “She loves helping others and wanted me to do the same,” says Kassam. “Once I got involved I loved it and it became my life.”

Apparently for the younger generations of Canada, voluntary motivation comes in all shapes and sizes. Twenty-nine-year-old Benjamin Valliquette Kissell attributes his to the culture he grew up in, specifically the one embraced by his elementary and high school principals. He recalls fondly the elementary principal who fueled his desire to give back. “I’m sure she’s still involved in doing amazing things,” he says in awe. “I was so lucky to have her.”

That experience would enable Valliquette Kissell’s strong commitment to volunteering later in life. “I was used to that culture,” he shares. “And when it wasn’t present I felt the urge to create that culture again within my environment.” The first opportunity to create that culture arose when he enrolled as a student at George Brown College majoring in construction sciences and management.

Seeing a strong synergy between his studies and Habitat for Humanity Toronto, Valliquette Kissell was surprised to see there were no joint voluntary projects already in place that would allow students to gain on-site experience while helping others. “Growing up I was used to the programs being there, you didn’t have to seek them out, you just raised your hand.”

He contacted Habitat for Humanity, got their blessing, and brought George Brown into the Habitat Campus Coalition. As director of construction and president of the George Brown chapter, Valliquette Kissell has been instrumental with various projects, including a Reading Week Build, for which the coalition raised almost $10,000 and a recent outdoor sleepover to raise awareness and funds.

Another volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, 22-year-old Sabnam Islam is a business graduate of Western University. She’s involved in a number of voluntary projects but her main focus these days is overseeing the Habitat Youth Coalition’s programming for young people. “People discount the ability of young people but I’ve met a lot of high school students who’ve inspired me,” she offers. “I have 15-year-olds in my team who know so much, I wouldn’t have given them credit before. It’s eye-opening to see what young people can do.”

Taking initiative

As for what brought her to Habitat? Islam looks inward. Though her friends email each other about different volunteer opportunities, this one was her initiative. “I read a lot about social issues, like inequality and that fuels my passion,” she says. “I know friends can play an important part but, for me, personally, it’s something I would do anyway.”

Richard Chen, a 16-year-old student would probably agree. Heavily involved with voluntary projects through Youth Central, Chen also volunteers with Calgary Family Services, the Instrumental Society of Calgary, Timeraiser and Art a la Carte, a foundation that uses artwork to comfort cancer patients.

“I didn’t know anything about volunteering before junior high school,” recounts Chen. “But after I saw what was going on, I got really interested and started volunteering through Youth Central.”

Was the social influence of his peers a deciding factor? “Nothing tangible really influenced me,” he replies thoughtfully. “When I sign up for projects, I don’t ask my friends to join me, I’m rather indifferent to their asking me to join up. If I wanted to sign up, I would.”

As for other influences? “I was never mandated to volunteer and my parents didn’t push me either,” he says. “But when I volunteer, that feeling of helping other people is something I really like.” Sounds simple enough.

Inspirations are many

So what about all that talk of social peer pressure? It may very well exist but, as these students demonstrate, there are plenty of influences in life and volunteering is no exception. “Working with our younger advocates, I’ve found there are a wide variety of catalysts that would see them volunteer,” says faith and community relations coordinator at Habitat for Humanity Toronto, Enloe Wilson. “Peer or family influence, a faith tradition, the desire to repay their own good fortune – all have some place in mobilizing young people to give back to their communities.” Bottom line, he adds, “It seems we simply have an inborn need to leave behind a world better than the one we find.”

What’s more, let’s not forget that every group needs leaders, individuals who drive others to act, to make change. So it’s not that social influence doesn’t play a part, it’s simply these young volunteers ARE the influencers, inspiring others to volunteer. As Valliquette Kissell explains, “I try to connect people with Habitat; feeding off that interest can be where my role comes into play.”

What they all share too is the knowledge that, ultimately, it comes down to you. “I try to get my friends involved,” says Islam. “I try to inspire others but I think sometimes you just have to do it on your own.”

Ros Doi, initiative manager at Youth Central, would agree. Youth are influenced by a variety of things but what’s most important is that they inspire themselves to give back. “Without that, they wouldn’t show up to volunteer projects on Saturdays, wouldn’t give up their evenings to lead their peers in a volunteer committee. Young people see the opportunity to make a difference and they want to make change. As a community we just need to make sure we can give them the tools to enact change.”

Kassam echoes those sentiments. She’s proud of the fact that she’s encouraged friends to join her in various volunteer activities, including the Mayor’s Youth Council and We Day, an event that inspired her friends to do more post-event. Still, she adds, “It comes within you. If you don’t feel passion, it’s hard to stay committed. I try to motivate and persuade others to join; hopefully they’ll eventually see what kind of impact it’ll make.”

Looking for tips on how your organization can work with volunteers? Check out Have students, will achive. 

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Photos (from top) courtesy of Benjamin Valliquette Kissell and Habitat for Humanity Toronto. All photos used with permission.

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