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Youth Volunteering: Let’s make space for our young people again! 

Sep. 12 2023

Volunteers are the heart of United for Literacy. Each year, over 1,600 volunteers give thousands of hours to ensure no one is left behind when it comes to literacy. They tutor math, reading, and writing; read stories; help with special events; and much more. Youth (15 to 30) comprise 68% of the volunteer base of United for Literacy. These volunteers are often university students from all four corners of the country.

If you are a young person who wants to make a lasting impact on your community, please join us. Working with others is a chance to grow as a person while you help to transform the lives of those you serve. Together, we can build a society where everyone can access knowledge, and every individual has the chance to thrive.

Youth and volunteerism: The current landscape

As we recover from COVID-19, we realize that we need to try new ways of recruiting and supporting young volunteers. We have 125 years of providing meaningful volunteering opportunities for Canadian youth. But what worked in the past doesn't always work today. We are always searching for new and innovative ways to connect with youth and inspire them to volunteer. I am joined in this exploration of youth volunteerism by two colleagues:

  • Megan Conway, CEO of Volunteer Canada, and 
  • Franca Gucciardi, CEO of the McCall MacBain Foundation.*
*Editor's note: In December 2023, Franca Gucciardi announced that after six years as the CEO of the McCall MacBain Foundation and the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill, she would be stepping down from her role.

I invite you to read on to learn more and see of the ways United for Literacy is responding to our young volunteers. I hope this article also benefits other organizations working to enhance volunteer experience. 

According to Volunteer Canada, the impact of COVID-19 continues to have a huge impact on our country. Our communities are being tested as needs grow. At the same time, organizations face a shortage of volunteers [1] and are struggling to meet their community's needs. [2] Canada’s youth have the potential to build an inclusive and resilient future. People in their 20s and 30s today are tomorrow's leaders, and they are finding ways to solve our most pressing issues.

“Youth bring energy, skills, and fresh perspectives, and have enormous potential to make positive contributions to their communities,” says Franca Gucciardi, CEO of the McCall MacBain Foundation. “As community leaders, it is our responsibility to find ways to involve youth in our projects, not only to support the work that we do, but to provide youth with a healthy place to come and contribute to work they care about.”

People under 30 make up over 40% of Canada's population. We know this generation is more civically engaged, digitally connected, and educated than previous.[3] Being active in the community helps young people gain meaningful experience. Volunteering assists youth as they:
  • gain skills,
  • meet new people of different ages and experiences, and
  • open new opportunities and possibilities. [4],[5]
A high level of youth engagement leads to stronger communities, which has a positive impact on the country. [6]

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way youth work, learn, and show up in the community. [7] The increase in online learning and decrease in high school community involvement requirements have likely led to youth choosing not to volunteer in a formal way.  That said, there are news ways to get involved in casual or informal ways. [8] We lack current national data on the impacts of COVID-19 on youth participation and engagement. However, Megan Conway, CEO of Volunteer Canada, has noticed and shared the following historical patterns:
  1. Volunteering Rates – Formal and Informal: In 2018, youth aged 15-30 contributed to 23% of all volunteer hours across the country. People born between 1996 and 2012 (often referred to as Generation Z, iGen, or Gen Z) were more engaged than other generations in both formal and informal activities (43%). Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1995) engaged less than other generations (33%). [9] Youth prefer short-term or episodic volunteering opportunities to long-term commitments. [10]
  1. Formal Volunteering: In 2018, youth 15-30 had the highest rates of formal volunteer engagement (46%). Rates dropped in relation to age. Common forms of formal volunteering for this age group were:
  • Organizing events (21%)
  • Raising money on behalf on an organization (17%)
  • Teaching, educating, or mentoring (15%)
  • Collecting, serving, or delivering food (10%)
  • Sitting on a committee or board (10%) [11]
Youth volunteers were most likely to have formal engagement with social services (24%), education and research (22%), sports and recreation (18%), and religious organizations (16%) [12]
  1. Informal Volunteering: In 2018, Gen Z (78%) and Millennials (77%) were more likely to be informal volunteers than other generations. 74% gave direct help to people through activities like
  • Housework and home maintenance,
  • Shopping,
  • Driving to stores or appointments,
  • Paperwork,
  • Health-related or personal care, or
  • Teaching, coaching, or tutoring.
30% took part in community improvement activities:
  • Maintaining a park or public space,
  • Participating in public meetings,
  • Sharing information,
  • Coordinating a group or event,
  • Developing an economic or social project,
  • Engaging in online awareness-building activities (online petitions, crowdfunding, hackathons, etc.) [13]
  1. Organizations of Interest: In 2020, youth 15-30 were more likely to participate or volunteer in sports or recreational organizations and cultural, educational, or hobby organizations. Women in this age group were more likely to engage in civic organizations than men. [14]
  2. Priority Areas: The 2021 State of Youth Report named the priority issues for Canadian youth:
  • Truth and Reconciliation
  • The environment and climate action
  • Health and wellness
  • Leadership and impact
  • Employment
  • Innovation, skills, and learning [15]
Youth are more likely to volunteer with organizations rooted in these areas. For example, in 2018, youth spent more volunteer time working with environmental organizations than older generations.

Today, youth in Canada are ready and willing to take part:
  • 74% feel it is important to be active in their community.
  • 78% want to learn more about making a positive difference. [16]
The message used to invite youth to engage is critical though. Terms like “community mobilization” and “community care” are more resonant than “volunteering.” Youth are also drawn to less formal, grassroots involvement that aligns with their values. [17],[18] These trends tell us to adapt the way we talk about volunteering. We need to find new ways to mobilize youth [19] and be clear about how their work will make an impact. [20]

Franca adds, “Many organizations offer the opportunity to fulfill high school service requirements. While this is an entry point, we must give youth more credit than this. All people want to feel they have something meaningful to give to others. Youth want to see how their experience feeds the bigger mission and vision of an organization. They want to see how they're doing good for the world. And they want to be part of a community that makes them feel positive and optimistic.

Removing barriers and enhancing volunteering opportunities: The United for Literacy experience

It’s important that all youth have equal access to meaningful opportunities. To do this, we must address barrier to volunteering. This includes:
  • Flexible schedules, online and in person
  • Providing transportation stipends
  • Strong, continuous training and support
  • Tools (including equipment, if possible)
“When we talk about barriers to volunteering for youth, people often talk about youth from underserved communities and seem to imply that they are volunteering less,” explains Franca. “It’s true that these youth are facing specific barriers that we need to dismantle. But it is also true that youth from underserved communities are deeply involved and want to see positive change happen around them. It’s our job to look around, see who is missing, and find ways to seek out youth. We can’t wait for youth to apply to our formal volunteer postings. It’s up to us to meet them where they are and give them the chance to join a community where their voice will be deeply valued, and their work fully appreciated.

Since 2020, United for Literacy has been working to respond to the needs of young people when it comes to volunteering. We’re making changes to our volunteer management, requirements, and support practices. Here is what we have put in place so far:

Volunteer management

  • We diversified our recruitment methods and increased social media promotion. This was done in a spirit of “meeting youth where they are.”
  • We refreshed our volunteer policies to be fully online. This reflects the post-pandemic world.
  • We continue to modernize our volunteer training. This includes using video, a modular approach, gamification, and bots to deliver information.
  • We created a new database to engage and manager volunteers in a more streamlined way.
  • We are offering professional development opportunities to young volunteers.

Youth Mobilization

  • We created a new Youth Mobilization Coordinator position.
  • We worked with a university to create a Volunteer App prototype. This will allow us to streamline communication with volunteers in the future.
  • We diversified our volunteer opportunities: online or in person, tutoring, special events, skills-based (e.g., volunteering with government relations).
  • We created a Volunteer Award, and we promote volunteer stories during National Volunteer Week.
  • We promote our internships, summer positions, and other paid job opportunities to our youth volunteers. The majority of our interns began as volunteers, and 15% of our interns become staff.
  • We are creating a meaningful alumni program to keep youth engaged after they have completed volunteering.
  • We are active about recruiting young people for our boards.
  • We will create digital badges and training certifications.
  • We have transitioned to a new, efficient police record check process.
  • We have plans to create a Youth Advisory Council.
  • We became a member of the National Alliance for Children and Youth (NACY). This is so we can better understand our youth and best contribute to their development, learners and volunteers alike.

In summary, we all need to work together to make sure every young person is engaged in volunteerism. This includes:

  • youth-serving organizations,
  • the entire nonprofit sector,
  • and our funders, whether they are public or private partners.
It is important that we:
  • focus on inclusivity and diversity,
  • offer training and support,
  • offer flexible opportunities,
  • collaborate with and listen to our young volunteers,
  • use technology to communicate and track hours efficiently,
  • and amplify the voices of young people.
Regular evaluations and check-ins to measure success will lead to healthy engagement standards. We want young people to make meaningful contributions to their communities. Let's make it easy and appealing for them to get involved.

Young People: Please join us!

Be part of positive change in your community while gaining valuable skills. As a volunteer tutor for a literacy program, you can foster a love for learning and empower those who face barriers to reaching their goals. It’s also a great chance to spark your imagination and get creative! Your work with United for Literacy may take you to libraries, community centres, and other places where you’ll meet people and feel included. By spending a small amount of time with your learner, you’ll help bridge the education gap and create a more inclusive society.

“Volunteering has a wealth of benefits for youth,” says Franca. “By getting involved, you’ll be better able to discover who you are, what matters, find your voice, develop a sense of belonging, and build connection to your community. Volunteering can also provide an opportunity to build confidence, social skills, organizational skills, and learn how to manage greater responsibility in a safe and supportive environment. We know that these kinds of experiences have positive impacts on youth mental health and are a real investment in community well-being.”

As CEO of United for Literacy, an organization that relies on the dedication of volunteers, I am grateful to every young volunteer making a difference in the lives of others.

About the authors
Mélanie Valcin is the President & CEO of United for Literacy (formerly Frontier College). 
Mélanie received a Masters degree in International and Community Development from the University of Toronto. She has been working in the areas of education, social innovation, youth mobilization and community development for the past 20 years. Prior to joining United for Literacy, Mélanie worked for the Red Cross in Canada, coordinated international exchange programs with Monash University in Australia and served for the United Nations Development Fund for Women in Mexico City.

Mélanie currently sits on the Board of Directors of Le Devoir, a prominent daily newspaper in Quebec. She also volunteers with Groupe 3737, an incubator for entrepreneurs from minority groups. In 2022, Melanie was named Black Changemaker by the CBC. She is also a member of Montreal's Groupe des Trente, which aims at promoting diversity in governance.

Mélanie firmly believes that education is the key to achieving social equity and prosperity. Mélanie has been with Frontier College for nearly 20 years, starting as Regional Manager for Quebec and Nunavut, and serving most recently as Vice President, Programs and Impact.

Megan Conway, CEO of Volunteer Canada. With twenty years of diverse leadership roles in government and the charitable, voluntary and academic sectors, Megan has been recognized for her ability to scale innovation, to use evaluative thinking to build and adapt programs, and as a systems change champion.  

Franca Gucciardi. Franca was the CEO of the McBall MacBain Foundation at the time the article was published. She is know the Acting Chief Operating Officer at CIFAR.  Franca is an entrepreneurial leader who has built innovative programs in Canada and globally. She has founded various international initiatives that nurture the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders and has recruited and engaged hundreds of volunteers and donors across Canada and around the world. Franca is a global expert on contextual-based assessment systems and youth leadership programs. She has put together high-performing teams and executed bold strategic visions, delivering results in non-profit, public, charitable and philanthropic organizations that she has led through different phases, including turn-around, start-up and transformational growth.

Read more about youth volunteering in this article by Yazmin Pascual Dominguez from the Redstone Agency: How to Englage Young Adult Volunteers.

[1] CBC News. (2023, January 24). Critical lack of volunteers putting Canadian non-profit services at risk: Volunteer Canada. CBC.

[2] Lasby, D., & Barr, C. (2021). Imagine Canada’s Sector Monitor: The uneven impact of the pandemic on Canadian charities.

[3] Canadian Heritage, C. (2021). Canada’s first State of youth report: For youth, with youth, by youth.

[4] Flanagan, C., & Levine, P. (2010). Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood. The Future of Children, 20(1), 159–179.

[5] Opportunity Nation. (2014). Connecting Youth and Strengthening Communities: The Data Behind Civic Engagement and Economic Opportunity.

[6] Arriagada, P., Khanam, F., & Sano, Y. (2022). Chapter 6: Political participation, civic engagement and caregiving among youth in Canada. In Portrait of Youth in Canada: Data Report. Statistics Canada.

[7] Mahboubi, P., & Higazy, A. (2022). Lives Put on Hold: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Canada’s Youth. C.D. Howe Institute.

[8] Hahmann, T. (2021). Volunteering Counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018 (Insights on Canadian Society). Statistics Canada.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vancouver Foundation. (2019). A Snapshot of Community Participation in BC.

[11] Hahmann, T. (2021). Volunteering Counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018 (Insights on Canadian Society). Statistics Canada.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Arriagada, P., Khanam, F., & Sano, Y. (2022). Chapter 6: Political participation, civic engagement and caregiving among youth in Canada. In Portrait of Youth in Canada: Data Report. Statistics Canada.

[15] Canadian Heritage, C. (2021). Canada’s first State of youth report: For youth, with youth, by youth.

[16] Bechard, M. (2022, November 23). Understanding Youth and Child Civic Engagement In Canada. Rideau Hall Foundation.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Apathy is Boring, & Environics. (2022). Canadian Youth - A Social Values Perspective on Identity, Life Aspirations and Engagement Of Millennials And Gen Z.

[19] Rodney, Y. (2023, March 14). Volunteerism: In crisis or at a crossroads? The Philanthropist Journal.

[20] Bechard, M. (2022, November 23). Understanding Youth and Child Civic Engagement In Canada. Rideau Hall Foundation.

Group of young people waving at the camera
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