For Teens Who Volunteer, Social Change Is A Bonus

Ask a teen why she volunteers, and she’ll tell you things like “to make a difference in people’s lives” or “to work on an issue I care about deeply.” Ask that same teen about their volunteering habits (e.g., when, where, and with whom they volunteer), and a very different picture emerges. It turns out teens’ primary motivation for volunteering isn’t about creating social change. In fact, it’s the same motivation that drives most of a teen’s behavior: their friends are doing it.

Think of volunteering as a microcosm of a teen’s social world. Teens want to 1) hang out with friends, 2) connect through mobile technology (the average teen now exchanges over 5,000 texts per month), and 3) avoid commitment. Like a high school party, for volunteer events, teens often decide to go last minute, avoid showing up early, and almost never stay till the end. Being first or last isn’t cool. Volunteering, like everything else, is about blending in, making friends, and having a good time.  



How much do friends matter? A whopping 75.9% of those whose friends volunteer on a regular basis also volunteer. Only 41.7% of those whose friends do not volunteer regularly, volunteer. 

It may not feel surprising that social networks impact the volunteering behavior of young people (for teens, peer pressure is as pervasive as air); yet this insight is new to researchers. Before now, for teens, the volunteering habits of friends was ranked as the fifth-most important factor influencing volunteering rates, or lower. Whoops.

So how do you use these insights to engage teens in volunteering opportunities? Here are three simple ways.

1. Make your activities social. Forget volunteering projects young people can do from your office or even the teen’s home. It’s not fun to do data entry or install a compact fluorescent light bulb by yourself. Instead, try something like an environmental clean-up. Ask young people to clean up a park, and to sign up with friends, and suddenly volunteer work turns into hanging out, with social change as a bonus. 

2. Forget emails and newsletters. Text. If you Google “email is for,” you’ll find the first auto-complete option shown is “old people.” Teens live in a minute-to-minute world. If you want to keep in touch with them, you’ll have to live in their phone. Texts sent to teens have a 97% open rate. (Good luck getting that with email.) And with texting, you’ll be able to tell teens last-minute changes in plans for your volunteer event. Even if there aren’t any, improvise. (“We’re meeting by that big tree!”) Young people like to stay on their toes.

3. Make your activities like a party. Just in terms of event planning. Your volunteer events should be one-time commitments (i.e., little or no training required, and skip multi-day commitments), fluid (i.e., flexible start and end-times), and close to home (but not at home). Teens have crazy, over-packed lives. But if you keep your event flexible and accessible, teens will find ways to come, or as they would say, “make an appearance.” And hey, can they help it if they have multiple parties to attend?

Human behavior is not always driven by altruistic motivations – not even volunteering. Teens are mobile, flexible, and most importantly, social. They expect the same from their volunteer activities. If you want to engage teens in volunteering, tell them they’ll change the world. But more importantly, tell them their friends will save them a seat.

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