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Finding the sweet spot between volunteer time and program need

By Molly Frendo

As youth development professionals, we work hard to engage adult volunteers in meaningful long-term relationships with young people. Research, particularly from the field of youth mentoring, indicates that youth whose relationship with an adult mentor lasts at least a year have more positive outcomes than those lasting less than a year. Anecdotally, we hear youth in the 4-H program share how their 4-H club leader has been an ongoing source of support for several years as they developed life skills and grew into adulthood.

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?

-- Molly Frendo, former state program director, volunteer systems

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  1. We have seen this trend. It's frustrating! We have had some success with alumni of our programs commit to long-term involvement. However, they have so much ownership in the program that it's hard to incorporate the short-term volunteers in meaningful ways. It's a tricky balance.

    1. Joyce, it definitely can be frustrating! I think you're right to pull alumni in because they're already engaged in the program, but I can imagine they're tied to it being a certain way. Is it possible to sit down with them and talk about how things have changed (neither good nor bad, just different) and ask them how their expertise and things they've learned from their time in the program can inform what they do now? You might also need to remind them that just as volunteers who worked with them allowed the program to take its own shape, they need to provide space for the current youth to do the same.

  2. In addition to the 4-H SPIN Clubs, I think FIRST (FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics) also provides a good model of engaging volunteers with specialized skill sets that have previously not thought of sharing those skills with youth. FIRST competitions have a limited (but VERY intense) time commitment with clear expectations for the youth-adult partnership. And lessons from working with our own MN 4-H Aquatic Robotics clubs validate your suggestion to have volunteers share tasks - Aquatic Robotics clubs tend to be sustainable when there is a content volunteer AND a logistics/coordination volunteer. It will be interesting to see how these short time commitments that happen yearly affect positive outcomes.

    1. I think that skills-based volunteering is the way to go for many of our programs, especially in the STEM field. We have lots of parents who are willing to help do the administrative tasks, but don't feel comfortable doing the teaching in a science or engineering content area. Many of our engineers or research scientists might not know about working with youth or want to bother with logistics, but the partnership between the volunteers can be fantastic. I would also love to see us utilize skills-based volunteers in some roles that don't directly involve youth - for instance, I'm sure many of our county offices could use a volunteer who helps with social media and volunteer recruitment.


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