Good for the sector, good for the students: Mandatory volunteering for high school graduation

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Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, one of the key goals of education in Canada is to produce good citizens. With this in mind, in 1999 the Ontario Ministry of Education began requiring every high school student to complete voluntary community service hours as a requirement for graduating — with the Ministry stating that the purpose of such mandatory service was to “encourage students to develop awareness and understanding of civic responsibility and of the role they can play in supporting and strengthening their communities.”

The phenomenon has spread across the country with students in Ontario needing 40 hours, British Columbia students completing 30 hours (although this can include paid work experience), while students in Newfoundland and Labrador volunteer for 30 hours and students in the Northwest Territories serve for 25 hours. Other regions are considering such programs or letting local school boards decide.

CharityVillage decided to examine the challenges and successes of mandatory volunteering for high school students both for individual volunteers and for the sector as a whole.

Is mandatory volunteering really volunteering?

According to the authors of several 2007 studies on mandatory volunteering of Ontario high school students, advocates offer three arguments for this approach:

  • Patterns of engagement developed during adolescence set up civic engagement behaviour in adulthood;
  • Volunteer activity is strongly related to responsible citizenship;
  • Volunteering does not simply arise from attitudes shaping behaviour but in a reciprocal way where people develop the habit of volunteering when they are placed in situations where the skills of volunteering are developed.

The 2007 studies found that mandating community service in high school draws students into the voluntary sector in a significant and substantial way, stating, “we estimate that about 20% of students would not freely choose this route.” Also, they observe, “the fact that these students were mandated to volunteer appears to have had no negative impacts on the quality of their experience, on their subsequent civic engagement, or on their attitudes concerning philanthropy.”

Stacy Ashton, executive director of Community Volunteer Connections in Coquitlam, BC agrees, saying, “Students don’t seem to make a distinction between whether volunteering is mandatory or not. Even if it is not a graduation requirement, most students know it will help them with scholarships or to get into programs in post-secondary.” She adds, “High school students are used to things being mandatory — whether it’s math, physical education or volunteering. As a society, we decide what young people need to be successful, and volunteering is something that does help them succeed. It really does do a lot for teens in terms of their feeling of being part of the community, their confidence levels, and their exploration of what they would like to do.”

“Youth are not only volunteering because of mandatory community hours,” says Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. Marisa Robins agrees. Fundraising and development manager of the GTA-based peer-to-peer tutoring program Licensed to Learn, Robins says that annual surveys of their volunteers show that 43% joined the program to help, give back or make a difference in another student’s life. “Volunteer hours are definitely not the primary motivator. Some want to help younger siblings or those in younger grades. They also report that volunteering makes them feel good.”

The reality is also that, while these programs are designed to introduce students to volunteering, many students are already volunteering. Studies of Ontario high school graduates found that 88% of them had volunteered before, with no external prompting or motivation — 67% of them having volunteered during elementary school.

Speevak notes that youth aged 15 to 24 have always had the highest rate of volunteering of all age groups, with 66% of youth volunteering compared to 44% of the rest of the population. She also notes that the average youth who volunteers does so for 110 hours each year – well above the 25-40 hours mandated by various educational bodies.

Adding value to mandated volunteering

Studies and anecdotal reporting, however, indicate that volunteering alone does not make students more engaged citizens. What matters is the quality of their experience and the opportunity to reflect on it in an integrated way.

Omar Mahboob, a grade 12 student in Waterloo, Ontario, says this of his experience: “It was quite difficult to find a role I actually enjoyed – and that made it challenging to get the hours done.” Initially, Mahboob saw an advertisement for volunteers and was given a data entry role. “It wasn’t engaging and I didn’t feel like I was making a meaningful contribution to the organization.” A friend suggested he join a team doing door-to-door canvassing but this was also a poor fit. Finally, a family friend suggested an opportunity to work with the local public health department on a youth health advocacy team. “I truly enjoyed my time with public health and am continuing to volunteer with them even after I have completed my hours.” This experience has also shaped his career plans: “Before this, I was leaning toward engineering but now I am looking to explore medicine and do something related to public health or public policy.”

Mahboob is not alone. The marketing manager for Community Volunteer Connections’ Festival of Volunteers is Nicole Hou, a 17 year old volunteer. “She’s brought a lot of great innovations we hadn’t thought of and an eagerness to learn as she handles our social media campaign and our marketing in high schools — but before she worked with us, she was turned down for quite a few opportunities because of her age,” says Ashton.

Many students don’t find meaningful volunteer roles. Janelle Hinds, who is working on developing an app to track volunteer hours, says that many of her peers, including those who were high achievers academically, “weren’t happy with their volunteer positions – their role was aimless rather than educational.” In some cases, frustrated by the experience, some students may even forge their volunteer experience in order to graduate.

In addition to finding a great placement, Speevak emphasizes that real learning and growth happens when students have the opportunity to debrief and reflect on their experience. The 2007 studies observe, “A high school program with mandated community service should help students with prior volunteering experience grasp: (a) the importance of what they have done to date and (b) how they can build on their previous experiences to do more good for the community and their own development.”

While this support does not happen everywhere in the country, in the South Slave Divisional Education Council of the Northwest Territories, community service is well integrated into high school curriculum. The South Slave superintendent, Dr. Curtis Brown, says that students learn about their community service requirement in a required grade nine credit course where they develop a Career and Program Plan (CPP) in collaboration with teachers and parents, which is reviewed and updated annually. Students are also required to pass a credit course on Career and Life Management, during which they are encouraged and supported to find placements for their community service requirement.

Reflection can also happen outside a formal classroom setting. Key Clubs are student-led service clubs, located in 5,000 schools around the world, including in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. William Zhang is a grade 11 student in Ottawa and a divisional Lieutenant Governor with Key Clubs. The Key Club at his school has 130 students who meet weekly to plan and implement a wide variety of fundraising projects and service activities. “Our meetings aren’t always hammering on about service hours, though,” says Zhang. “We also talk and develop friendships. After an activity, we pause and look at what we’ve done, discuss our progress and our future goals. It’s great to reflect on what we’ve done.”

Challenges in supporting student volunteers

One of the challenges of supporting students is that neither school boards nor nonprofits have been given extra resources to help students get their volunteer hours in a meaningful way. “Everyone wants to see more young people engaged in voluntary work,” says Kimberly Ellis-Hale, one of the authors of the 2007 studies, “but the burden often falls on organizations that are already stretched, including schools and teachers.”

Speevak says that this public policy change posed (and continues to pose) a challenge for the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits want to make students feel welcome and supported. However they can sometimes find it challenging to deal with increased numbers of people who require specific numbers of hours within a set time-frame.”

Ashton adds, “A challenge is that many volunteer opportunities require training to do well, and a commitment of weeks and months. Volunteers who need thirty hours can be a burden on an organization and don’t really benefit the organization long term because just as the volunteer is getting good, they’re gone.”

This dynamic requires organizations to balance their own needs and capacity with the concrete and pressing needs of students. “As a sector, there’s a lot at stake,” says Speevak. “We don’t want students to call and feel rejected – a generation of volunteers may be turned off by such experiences.”

Another challenge is that, too often, with no real resources provided to school boards to help students find meaningful opportunities, students and their families are left on their own to find volunteer placements. A further complication occurs for students who must balance a job and their volunteer hours. While not an issue for those in BC who can use their work hours toward the requirement, it can be a burden for students who are balancing work schedules and the pressures of holding down a job while also going to school.

Ellis-Hale says, “It’s important to remember that programs like this can perpetuate inequality. The quality of a student’s volunteer experience is often related to socioeconomic status of the family – not just the parents’ connections but their broader social network. Some people don’t have connections.” This is often particularly true of new Canadians. Of her immigrant parents, Hines says, “They didn’t know how to help me, so I went with what my friends told me.”

Best practices in supporting student volunteers

While parents, volunteer centres and schools do their best to support student volunteers, some emerging ideas are addressing the needs and opportunities in innovative ways.

Community Volunteer Connections often received calls every June from teens or their parents, desperate for volunteer hours right away. They also fielded calls from organizations needing volunteers for an immediate event. Inspired by a New York City-based volunteer team shown on television, Community Volunteer Connections launched their CVC Flying Squad. High school students who sign up to be part of the squad get a t-shirt and a regular email listing upcoming short-term volunteer opportunities. The idea quickly caught fire – with more than 500 people now in the squad, and 100 new people signing up each year.

“We’ve turned a difficulty into a success story,” says Ashton. The organization has also worked to understand the secret of their success. “Youth often don’t have control of their schedules. Instead of getting frustrated and seeing youth as unreliable, we’ve built a low-barrier system that recognizes that they need flexibility but want to be part of their community.” The only requirement for members of the Flying Squad is “if you sign up, you show up” to volunteer at one of the 100 annual Flying Squad events. Community Volunteer Connections now has one full-time staff member coordinating the Flying Squad. Volunteers often become episodic or even regular volunteers for organizations they have served with through the Flying Squad – something Ashton sees as a success of the program.

After her school misplaced her signed volunteer record, Hinds decided to make a difference in helping students track their volunteer hours. She is currently in the research phase of developing an app to help students find a good volunteer fit and track their hours. Other organizations are responding to the challenge of tracking volunteer hours. Web-based and give students tools to track their volunteer experience.

Ashton has seen a number of organizations that are initially hesitant to take on high school student volunteers, not sure a fifteen year old could do the job. She says that having youth volunteer hours offers organizations a chance to try them out. For the teens, as Omar says, “Many youth are passionate about different causes and don’t get the opportunity to explore them. Nonprofit groups that can provide this opportunity will enhance our experience.” Zhang adds, “We start to recognize that it’s not only about the opportunities we’ve gotten from the community but that we can do something to give back. We work together, learn from each other and help other people. It’s win win win.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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