Nicole Blyth is involved.
The vivacious farm girl from MacGregor has volunteered with community groups and at school, and jumped at just about every 4-H leadership opportunity that’s come her way.
Volunteering is a way to meet people, have fun, and learn new things, says Blyth, a Brandon University student planning to focus on rural development.
But there are many reasons why people don’t volunteer, she says. Some aren’t asked or don’t have their skills recognized. Others find their opinions aren’t sought or if recruited for something, are assigned small, relatively meaningless roles.
“I think a lot of youth just don’t think it’s cool to be involved,” says Blyth.
“They don’t see it as any fun or being able to learn something from it, or as a way to gain skills.”
Her observations echo a MAFRI webinar that examined the challenges organizations encounter in recruiting skilled, talented and energetic volunteers and the next generation of leaders.
A big part of the problem is the generation gap, says Meghan Sprung, the Carberry-based MAFRI rural leadership specialist who designed and delivered the video conference workshop viewed across Manitoba in November.
Most of those running service clubs, councils, committees and church groups are baby boomers or were born before the Second World War, points out Sprung. Their values and world views, not to mention clothes, speech patterns and viewpoints are very different than those of the generation Xers, millennials and “iMillennials,” (those born since 1980) they’d like to recruit.
There’s also something called “adultism” that turns off many youth — an attitude, consciously or unconsciously adopted by some, that younger people have little to contribute in terms of ideas, talents or skills. It manifests in a dismissive “you can cut the sandwiches, dear, but you can’t change the menu” view.
Organizations hoping to attract younger volunteers need to rethink their approach, says Sprung.
The Engaging Youth webinar’s main message was to communicate and work with the generational divide by learning to “think young.”
That means being more open and receptive to the skills, perspectives, and ideas those younger than yourself have to offer, says Sprung.
The webinar, which attracted 4-H leaders plus representatives of ag societies and other community organizations, posed a series of questions, such as, “What was I was like when I was 15 years old?” It challenged older volunteers to recall what sorts of roles and activities they would have liked to take on at that age. It also offered a range of ideas for involving youth on boards and best practices for recruitment and retention of youth.
There’s no formula for successfully engaging youth, says Sprung, but it starts by connecting with younger people. Menial tasks, such as stuffing envelopes, won’t cut it.
“Young people need to feel that their participation does something and means something for that organization,” she says. “And they’re looking for things that teach them new skills.”
Young people also have tight schedules with having fun near the top of their to-do lists.
“So find a way to provide a bit of fun,” adds Sprung. “We all know, if we’re volunteering our time, there has to be an aspect of fun to it.”
Mark Lawson, a teacher and guidance counsellor at Balmoral School near Stonewall, worked with Sprung to deliver the video conference. Having adults in your organization to serve as mentors or allies can be very helpful, said Lawson. An ally will make a point of asking them for their ideas and thoughts, and supporting and challenging them to take on a role or lead an activity in the group. Allies ask for input instead of merely assigning tasks, said Lawson.
“It’s about sharing decision-making processes,” he said.
When young volunteers come back for more, it’s because they’ve had a meaningful experience of some kind, says Sprung.
“It usually boils down to, ‘I got the chance to do this,’ or, ‘I learned something from this,’” says Sprung. “It may be that they’ve done something they’d never done before, or that they had a chance to use a skill they have and be recognized for it.”
Organizations also need to recognize the skills young people have with social media, such as Twitter, or blogs and websites. Older members of organizations may be completely flummoxed by it, but the young millennials are the Internet and iPod generation.
“They’re tech savvy,” says Sprung. “They have the skills that could be helping put you on Facebook or creating a web page for you.”
Youth bring unique and fresh perspectives, and often have a more global and broader perspective on the community, she adds.
Blyth says it was a combination of many influences that got her interested in community engagement and doing volunteer work. More than anything else, she says the 4-H program’s emphasis on youth leadership and skills development had the biggest impact on her.