There is a huge untapped pool of potential volunteers and social activists in the U.S today: the 26 million young adults between the ages of 18-24. Success in reaching young adults requires you to rethink your messages, your recruiting methods and vehicles, and your expectations for volunteers. But those nonprofit organizations that have found ways to reach and attract this group have benefited enormously from their volunteerism, energy and creativity.
The Busy Lives of Young Adults
Young adults today are fiercely individualistic, and are media-savvy to a degree never seen before. They are comfortable with - and bombarded by - the abundance of technologies that exist today, from cell phones to beepers to the Internet. As a consequence, they are also extremely stressed in their everyday lives. They also strongly believe that they can make the world a better place - a perfect springboard for getting them involved as volunteers.
Establishing roots within communities - whether neighborhoods, schools, work or religious institutions - is essential for many of today’s young adults. They consider community involvement to be a core part of their self-definition. Others believe that their lives are already too busy and stressful to pay much attention to the community. They have hardened themselves, and have turned inward - to friends and families - to distract themselves from the world’s problems.
Today’s young adults are open to finding several different ways to care, as opposed to earlier generations who often found one specific area in which to make a difference. Among the issues they find compelling are: health, substance abuse, children’s issues, the elderly, violence prevention, animal rights, and the environment.
Volunteers vs. Non-Volunteers
There are several keys to getting young adults to volunteer initially - and to retaining them as volunteers: informing them of the opportunities, convincing them that their time is important to the success of the program, getting them to see the cause as a personal one, showing them how their involvement can benefit them personally, and ensuring that they realize they are making a real contribution to changing the world.
There are several reasons why some young adults choose not to volunteer, including being unaware of opportunities, having a fear of volunteering, and lacking the time. Another key factor was the lack of volunteer role models in their lives. Many non-volunteers have very specific images of volunteers in their minds, and these images stand in stark contrast to the way they view themselves.
How You Attract and Retain Volunteers
Begin by selecting and training a Volunteer Coordinator whose mission is to coordinate all volunteer efforts and communications. Her first goal is to make each young adult volunteer feel a sense of affiliation with you and your cause. She should establish recognition systems so volunteers feel that their time and efforts are appreciated. The Coordinator must also stimulate introspection among the volunteers to help them find meaning and passion in their volunteer work.
Volunteers must be given meaningful work to do within your organization. And it is important to foster relationships between volunteers, as that will often be a strong motivator to inspire them to keep coming back.
Simplify the volunteering process for young adults. Anything you can do to avoid wasting their valuable time will send a strong message that you care about your volunteers and understand their needs. Offer a variety of time commitments to help them fit volunteering into their busy lives, including one-day projects, once a week projects, ongoing "fit it in when you can" projects, and part-time internships.
Creating and Delivering Your Messages
Among a variety of messages tested, the one that resonated best with young adults was: "By getting involved in a social cause, I know that I can’t change the world, but I might be able to make a small difference in someone else’s life." Both volunteers and non-volunteers related strongly to the statement: "It makes me feel good to help others."
Nonprofit organizations have much to give back to those who get involved with them. Whether it’s gaining new friends, new skills, or a broader sense of meaning about the world, volunteering can contribute to a young person’s life in ways few other activities can.
Of course there is no one key message that will work for every organization. The goal is to find a story or message that works for your organization, and then incorporate it into all of your communications. By coming at today’s young people with one consistent message, you’ll reinforce your brand and be more likely to stand out amidst all the clutter.
Try to position yourselves as people who have a common passion, rather than as an institution. You can also position volunteer work as being all about ideas. Today’s entrepreneurial young adults, more than any other generation, have embraced the power of ideas.
Many nonprofit organizations choose celebrity spokespeople to heighten the profile of their organization or cause. If you choose to use a celebrity, look for one who cares deeply about the issues your organization is involved in. Or consider working with "alternative" celebrities, such as authors, local musicians, athletes, and new/emerging actors and actresses.
A less expensive alternative is to find a spokesperson who is an opinion leader, or influential young person in your community. If an influencer is involved with or supports your cause, his peers will begin to ask him about it, and eventually they too will seek you out.
Choosing Vehicles to Reach Your Audience
Once you have developed your messages and selected and trained your spokesperson, the challenge is to ensure that your messages are heard by and resonate with your target audience. This requires using a variety of media and marketing tactics, including symbols such as logos, ribbons or pins, and t-shirts. Use the mass media that appeal to young adults - cable access and local TV programming, magazines aimed specifically at young people, and postcards, letters and newsletters sent directly to their homes. Young adults listen to an average of 23 hours of radio programming per week, so use this medium to reach them with your messages. And of course the Internet provides a multitude of ways to reach young adults, from chat rooms and bulletin boards to listservs and email.
There has never been a better time to engage young adults in the vital work nonprofits are doing in communities across the country. They are being bombarded concurrently with often confusing messages about opportunities for amassing great wealth, about growing social problems such as poverty, lack of adequate health insurance and increasing violence, and about politics. It is entirely possible for nonprofit organizations to cut through the clutter with targeted messages for getting young adults involved in causes and organizations that are meaningful to them. Using the tools and strategies included in the manual will help you succeed in cultivating young adults as lifelong volunteers.
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