We know that strong youth-adult partnerships are essential to positive youth development and that those partnerships take time to nurture and grow. At the same time, in the field of volunteer systems management, the trends are showing that individuals are still volunteering at similar rates; however, they are looking to make shorter commitments and work within flexible schedules.
According to experts like Tom McKee and Susan Ellis, cultural shifts have led to more individuals choosing to volunteer in ways that fit their lives and interests – and in many cases, this means short bursts of activity and a fear of commitment. These shifts include things like shifting family dynamics, the rise of technology, and economic challenges requiring individuals to work more than one job.
So it seems we are at an interesting crossroad: on one hand, we know that successful relationships between adult volunteers and youth take time. On the other, we know that adults are less willing or able to make those longer-term commitments. How do we balance the needs of our programming with the availability of our volunteers? Volunteers willing to stay a year or more are often central to our program design.
Creative programming and solid teamwork are essential to adjusting to this trend. Some states, including Illinois, Michigan, and Maine, have introduced 4-H SPIN Clubs – short-term clubs organized around a specific topic. They meet for about six weeks rather than a full year – or in some cases, twice a week for three weeks. Once it’s over, youth may choose to enroll in a new SPIN club, continue the same project at a higher level or join an ongoing 4-H club. Many 4-H programs have had success in engaging short-term volunteers on a long-term basis once they get comfortable in their roles.
Another tip is to be intentional about designing roles for people who can’t make a long-term commitment. These kinds of roles are great for volunteers with specialized skill sets like web design or social media. Often we only consider engaging volunteers in ways that directly serve our mission; however, many organizations are regularly using volunteers in administrative roles. Consider allowing volunteers to share roles – many tasks don’t have to be done by one person.
Finally, consider taking your volunteer program to the next level by inviting your veteran volunteers to take on a middle management role to support the additional volume of individuals needed to fill those larger roles.
Have you seen the trend of shorter-term volunteerism affecting your youth program? What suggestions do you offer for youth development programs to balance the positive relationships needed for outcomes with changing cultural circumstances?
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