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To create a volunteer-led youth program, focus on equity

By Jessica Pierson Russo

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Volunteerism in the United States has been declining for decades, but it dropped even further (7%) between 2019 and 2021. People volunteer for any number of reasons—to give back, to socialize, perhaps to learn a new skill in a fun way. A great way to scare people away from volunteering is to make it complicated or unwelcoming. One way to ensure a barrier-free opportunity to youth programs is to focus on equity, because this makes sure that everyone receives the unique resources and opportunities they need to participate in a meaningful way. 

An equitable approach is first a welcoming one. When we’re asking people to volunteer their time to lead a youth program, we can be most welcoming to them by focusing on building the relationship and keeping it simple. By "relationship," I mean both our relationship with the volunteer, and their relationship with the program. We can think of creating a volunteer-led youth program through five steps.

Step 1: Gather "Ingredients"

The main "ingredients" to a successful youth program are youth, caring adults to facilitate their experience, meeting times and locations that make sense for participants, and a motivation to help youth grow and have fun. A good way to gather these ingredients is to focus on building the program from the community up rather than the program down. As you would in any healthy relationship, find out what youth want and need, as well as what caring adults may be interested in helping and what they would want and need to volunteer their time. This approach ensures that the youth program continually serves the interests of its participants while avoiding temptation to do things simply because “it’s always been done that way.”  

Step 2: Focus on positive youth development and thriving

It can be easy to forget, in the day-to-day business of running a program, why we’re doing this to begin with. Keeping in mind basic elements of program quality, the focus of a supportive youth program should be about youth discovery, engagement, and growth. To support youth thriving and positive youth development, teach volunteers how to incorporate both educational and social/recreational components. Educational components allow youth to discover and dig into their interests in a fun and experiential way. The social and recreational components provide time and space for them to get to know themselves and others. Include civic engagement and service learning opportunities that help them see their own meaningful contribution to society and develop global citizenship. Check out these helpful youth civic engagement examples and 24 ideas for community service

Step 3: Develop an equitable youth leadership structure

Positive youth development is focused on young people creating a "strong sense of self that enables them to be actively involved in the leadership of their own lives." To cultivate this leadership, equitable youth leadership structures place youth voice at the center. The structure should be flexible enough to mold to the needs of the group, rather than expecting the youth to mold to a particular structure that may not work for them. This also ensures that it’s culturally appropriate and will also better engage youth in roles they feel are meaningful. Work with volunteers to facilitate a conversation with youth about what they want this structure to look like. Keep in mind that though a positional youth leadership structure is a good start, it’s not the only structure that should be in place. To youth, leadership is a process, not a position.

Step 4: Develop shared leadership for club management

Leading a youth program can be a daunting prospect. Keep in mind what is both effective and practical for your potential volunteers. An effective volunteer leader gets to know the skills, talents, and experiences of others and asks them to help as they’re willing. This “shared leadership” approach not only takes the pressure off of the volunteer leaders, but it also provides youth with other caring adult role models and can allow opportunities for youth-adult partnerships. 

Step 5: Enrollment and chartering

Current trends tell us that people get impatient with volunteer opportunities that end up being too complicated and can stop volunteering if they perceive it taking too much of their time. Keep in mind the needs of those who are newly deciding whether or not to commit. It’s best not to let logistics get in the way of the excitement and motivation that originally sparked their interest.  An equitable approach is a welcoming approach. When it comes to logistics, ask yourself, “what is the most welcoming way of guiding people through the process?” 

How do you see these steps towards equitable programming helping to make the process of leading a youth program less complicated for volunteers? What are other ways we can strengthen our relationships with volunteer leaders, as well as their relationship with the program?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. I appreciate your approach to thinking about steps when focusing on equity Jessica. We often get caught up in the big picture of what we want to do that the "how to's" seem too hard to accomplish. Gathering the ingredients with a focus on building the program from the community up really resonates with matching youth and adult needs to start the process. Providing resources for different ways to share ideas, build consensus, and do the work can generate motivation and a sense of hope to accomplish the group's challenges in the way that works for them versus in a way that it's always been done. Thanks for reminding me to encourage creativity!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Carrie! Yes, motivation is what we're striving to keep and build.

  2. This is such a wonderful piece, Jessica, and one that I am so grateful you have written. Indeed, we are seeing "volunteerism" shift dramatically in this country, but it is not because people don't care. They just want to be more involved in directly creating what it is they are contributing to society, rather than just filling a role that someone else created. I find the most invigorating conversations with a potential volunteer/helper includes a question about "what lights you up? What fire do you hope to light in young people?" When we start from this place, it is more empowering and motivating.


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