A huge pool of potential volunteers and social activists in the United States – 26 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 – remains untapped.
"That’s a whopping 13 percent of the adult population," says LSU AgCenter 4-H youth volunteer expert Dr. Janet Fox.
Success in reaching these young people requires rethinking the marketing messages, recruiting methods and expectations for volunteers, according to Fox.
According to a study, Engaging the Next Generation: How Non-Profits Can Reach Young Adults, young adults voiced a wide range of motivations for volunteering: creating new routines, meeting new people, building career skills, getting experiences to put on their resume, providing an avenue to figure out who they were, supporting their passions, relating to the causes and organizations, connecting with family and friends, and making a difference in the lives of others.
"Getting young people to help out the first time is easy; just ask them," Fox says. According to an Independent Sector study, 87 percent of those individuals asked to volunteer did help out. Only 16 percent of those who were not asked to volunteer volunteered anyway. In an Ad Council study, several respondents said they were asked to get involved by a friend or family member. Others heard about opportunities through local groups.
"There is a clear ‘volunteer mentality’ that differentiates those who volunteer from those who do not," Fox observes, explaining, "Volunteers have the most pronounced desire to make a difference in the world, tending to be more empathetic and more proactive than non-volunteers."
Young volunteers want to be told why to get involved. It’s important to have a compelling message about what young people can do to contribute and why it is critical that they offer their time and talents.
Today’s young adults are open to finding several different ways to show they care, as opposed to earlier generations who often found one specific area in which to make a difference. Because today’s young people have no clear common causes to rally around, young people are excited by a variety of causes. They are more likely to take their own unique approach to getting involved. Among the issues they find compelling are:
The majority of young people who don’t volunteer didn’t know where to find out about volunteer opportunities. Their confusion is a definite indication that more and better communication about the opportunities available to them would go a long way toward getting them involved.
Young adults who don’t volunteer lack volunteer role models. As a result, they have no one to turn to for the "real answer" to their questions or to show them the ropes. This underscores the importance of good training and mentoring programs.
The fear of volunteering is a complex issue with several dimensions. First is a fear of the unknown. Many of today’s young adults have grown up under a regime of crowded calendars, multitasking parents and days that are scheduled down to the minute with activities with known outcomes. Not surprisingly, this context tends to color their views about the activities in which they participate as young adults. In addition, they fear getting attached to an elderly or sick person who might die or to a child who will not need their support.
Non-volunteers raise concerns about the perceived lack of organization of today’s non profit agencies. These agencies seem to be buried in layers of bureaucracy or simply are disorganized. Non-volunteers don’t want to get involved with an organization whose structure might create unnecessary time commitments that would weigh them down. Lack of time or a lack of flexible volunteering alternatives that fit into their time constraints is another big barrier to involvement.
Finally, many non-volunteers think that those who do volunteer are being "saints." Not surprisingly, these people tend to sell themselves short, believing that they are "not good enough" to be a volunteer. Because they are unfamiliar with volunteer jobs, non-volunteers believe they lack the skills needed to get the job done.
Fox advises recruiters that before they begin looking for volunteers they should draft a job description of the task needed to be done. In developing the recruitment message, they should think about developing messages that resonate strongly with young adults.
Although there is no perfect message for everyone, Fox recommends keeping certain guidelines in mind when delivering the recruitment message: be personal, stay focused, be relevant, be candid, be authentic, be true to the values and mission of the organization and let them decide.
Young adults respond favorably to humor, music, meaningful content and positive, actionable messages. They like messages that show cause and effect or a sense of accomplishing goals.
In one study, the Ad Council exposed volunteers and non-volunteers to a series of volunteer recruitment messages. The statement that got the best response was, "I know that I can’t change the world, but I might be able to make a small difference in someone else’s life."
This statement frees young people from the pressure of the world’s problems and instead points out the value of "small" contributions. Other effective statements were, "It makes me feel good to help others," and, "I have been fortunate in life and would like to give to others who are less fortunate."
Getting the word out is one of the more complex parts of the recruitment process. Young adults are enthusiastic consumers of media, but they have to contend with a mind-boggling array of choices. Because of this, Fox says to consider using a variety of media sources, including local media, national media, direct mail, the Internet and unconventional marketing approaches.
Internet. E-mail tends to be one of the best ways to communicate with young adults over time. Unlike physical addresses, Web addresses are portable, and young adults tend to keep the same e-mail addresses even as they move around. Another effective strategy is to link with other community-based, employee sites and university sites. Web sites such as www.volunteermatch.org, www.servenet.org and www.cool2serve.org connect young adults to service opportunities.
Magazines. Magazines are another viable option, although an incredibly complex one. They target unique market segments and have a high outreach potential. Contact the editor with a story idea in the hopes that an article will be written about your organization.
Radio. Radio remains one of the best, most targeted ways to reach young adults. Marketers of all sorts take advantage of this relatively low-cost way to deliver their messages, and young adults listen to an average of almost 23 hours per week. Young people are more likely to identify with their radio station than with other media outlets.
Direct mail. Moving beyond the traditional mass media, an increasing number of marketers have begun to include mail as a "direct" component of their marketing plans. Mail can often be a more effective means of delivering a complex message. To the extent that you want to convey extensive information about your cause, your organization and what you stand for, a letter is a great way to accomplish this.
Television. Because young adults are avid TV watchers and are a very visual generation, television can be a very powerful medium for reaching them. TV ads tend to be interesting and engaging to them. The drawback is that there are so many TV stations available it is often difficult to reach young people without a major financial commitment.
Newspapers. Since conventional newspapers tend to reach age groups older than 24, they are not likely to reach a large portion of young people. Consider alternative newspapers and college newspapers, and take advantage of the opportunities that present both advertising and editorial coverage. The 18- to 24-year olds are much more likely to read the online versions of newspapers, so your best news-related opportunity might be on line.
University volunteer centers. Universities are also a good place to look for student volunteers. Volunteer opportunities can be listed with university volunteer centers, student government organizations or with the union council. Many of these organizations have systems to help you recruit and advertise volunteer opportunities. It’s important to contact a sponsor or center director to learn the ins and outs of the system you are working within. Match what your organization needs with the campus organizations that are addressing a similar need.
Events. Events provide a great avenue to get the word out to young adults. From service or job fairs to communitywide events, many opportunities are available to get your word out.
Consider a spokesperson. A celebrity, opinion leader or young adult who has credibility and influence with young adults makes an outstanding spokesperson. Sophisticated marketers choose to get their messages across with influential people. If the spokesperson is involved with or supports the cause, peers will ask about and seek out the organization.
Personal touch. In addition to getting the word out via mass media, the personal touch is probably the best way to get the word out. Students are one of the best sources for getting out information to their friends. They make wonderful volunteer recruiters, because they can talk from personal experience and enthusiasm.
"The world of a young adult is ever-changing," Fox says, adding, "Knowing where young adults are coming from and what motivates them will go along way in the volunteer recruitment process."
Organizations that focus on causes that mirror the interests of young adults will go far in creating an interest in their organization. Knowing the differences between volunteers and non-volunteers is important in reaching these individuals in compatible ways.
Barriers to volunteering, such as lack of volunteer role models and the perception of unorganized non-profits, must be broken down to entice non-volunteers to help out.
For information on related youth and family topics, click on the 4-H clover at the AgCenter Web site: www.lsuagcenter.com. For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.
Source: Janet Fox (225) 578-6751, or Jfox@agcenter.lsu.edu