The Power Of Volunteens

A couple weeks ago I chaperoned a camping trip for my son’s class, sharing a cabin and a few days with eight pre-teen boys and daytime activities with all 82 students. There were plenty of stories. 

Still, the first thing I shared with my wife was how impressed I was by this group of kids. I was struck by their “all for one, one for all” attitude and the support they showed to those who needed it, whether a special needs student or the kid too afraid to make the zip line leap. It truly gave me hope for the teens and young adults of tomorrow.

Then, this past week, I was on a call with one of our pro-bono clients, the team from Global Volunteers and The St. Lucia Project. When the discussion turned to a group of Arizona high school students who had made the trip to St. Lucia, we talked about the high value of their volunteer time. Not only were they particularly effective at engaging and, therefore, impacting the youth they were there to help, their social media proficiency made them more valuable than the average adult volunteer at spreading word about the project. 



Last year, completed what is the most comprehensive study of youth volunteerism, polling a national sample of over 4,300 young people (internet users 13-22, with middle and high school students representing 65%). Some of the findings of note:

  • 93% of young people are interested in volunteering; just over 54% of those surveyed had done so. The gap represents opportunity and untapped potential.

  • Youth want volunteering to be social. They are more likely to volunteer if they have friends who do so, with 75% of those whose friends volunteer on a regular basis also volunteering. And working with friends is the most desired attribute of a volunteer activity.

  • It’s not just club presidents and high achievers. Nearly 20% of volunteers were not even members of a club or organization. Further, over half were infrequent volunteers, volunteering less often than every few months. That means there’s opportunity to engage them without pulling them away from another cause or organization.

  • Active youth with strong social networks are more likely to volunteer. Activities like belonging to a sports team, spending time with friends, even watching movies or visiting the mall more often, increase the likelihood. The propensity of youth volunteers to actively use social technologies also makes them powerful cause advocates.

  • Lack of time is the number one reason young people give for not volunteering.

  • And, contrary to common perceptions, 63% of youth volunteers are not doing so to meet requirements of any type. 

What does all this mean? First, it begs we reframe some of our thinking about youth. People are often too quick to paint teens with a brush dipped in laziness and narcissism. I would argue their social connections and broad worldview make them more likely to be Generation We than Generation All About Me.

There are also clear implications for brands that might consider cause marketing as part of their teen outreach.

  • Seek opportunities for teens not just to buy your brand but to join it by genuinely aligning with causes that matter to them.

  • Create social opportunities – experiences they can easily share with friends, whether while volunteering or via their social presence. 

  • Enable them to make a meaningful contribution by developing programs that don’t require big chunks of time or an extended commitment but instead let them see value in smaller engagements.

  • Show them what’s in it for them, whether it’s a resume boost, a way to make new friends or a means to greater personal fulfillment.

  • Don’t bullshit. Teens have a keen nose for it. Either be sincere in your desire to help, or tap into a cause they already care about. 

As marketers, we can play to stereotypes that would have us think teens are self-centered, technology-absorbed zombies without much eye toward the world around them. Or, we can bet on teens and the power for good they represent. I think we’re better off with the latter.

2 comments about "The Power Of Volunteens".
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  1. Margo Wickersham Winter from MRW Consulting, LLC, June 3, 2013 at 3:43 p.m.

    Nothing is more satisfying than when helping others also helps ourselves. And when that occurs in business, it's simply beautiful.

  2. Michael Selz from Hummingbird Strategy, June 5, 2013 at 6:04 p.m.

    Loved this. And it syncs with what we've been finding in our own insights work. Thanks Steve.

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