Teens eager to volunteer when adults set example


June 20, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

For those readers who have not yet seen a copy of "America's Teenagers as Volunteers," stop what you're doing and give a call to Independent Sector in Washington at (202) 223-8100. This little pamphlet is worthwhile reading and should help you in your volunteerism efforts.

With funding from Metropolitan Life Foundation, Independent Sector summarized findings from major studies done recently on teen-age volunteers. The results are instructive for those organizations using the skills, talents and energies of teen-agers. For those of you who are not tapping into this volunteer market, you should be asking yourself why not.

Some 61 percent of teens are involved in some form of volunteering averaging about three hours a week (compared to only 51 percent of adults, by the way). Most are involved in formal religious-affiliated volunteer activities, youth development groups, schools and informal volunteering, such as helping friends and family.

One of the most telling results of the study is that teens volunteer when asked or when they have an example of a respected adult who volunteers. That speaks a whole lot to what we, as a society, need to do to encourage our youth to volunteer. With our lives so hectic, and with two-earner families so prevalent, we need to develop new and better ways to volunteer ourselves, so that teens can see that volunteerism in a busy world is possible. In fact, many teens must take on salaried work, to help themselves and their families survive.

Given the realities of today's world, the Independent Sector report paints a valuable profile of the characteristics of teen-age volunteers. First, they tend to have had a positive early childhood experience related to volunteering, with some hands-on activity, usually before age 11.

Next, they are much more likely than their nonvolunteer classmates to be active members of a church or synagogue. In an age when family and spiritual values seem to be under attack, it is instructive for us to note the relationship between religious affiliation and volunteerism. Some 48 percent of teens who volunteer do so through their place of worship.

Not surprisingly, the value system of teens who volunteer "emphasizes helping others, feeling compassion toward people in need and a desire to do something for a cause that is important to them," according to Independent Sector.

Finally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, these teens are characterized by a high activity level themselves. They tend to hold down part-time jobs or are involved in many school activities. In either case, they report having very little free time. Sound familiar?

Two recent trends also have had their influence on teens volunteering. One is the growth of school-based programs. Maryland, for example, is one of the few states in the nation that have a statewide volunteerism requirement for high school graduation. As the report points out, while students would prefer to have volunteerism be voluntary, they are generally not turned off by a service requirement. In fact, in schools that require volunteerism, some 78 percent of students volunteer, compared 62 percent in schools that have no such requirement.

Volunteer experiences during adolescence tend to produce adults who are more likely to volunteer, the Independent Sector researchers also report. That also speaks volumes to policy-makers and nonprofit sector leaders who are concerned about the future of the nonprofit sector.

Reports such as this, and the front-line research that supports them, go a long way toward helping us understand crucial nonprofit issues such as volunteerism. The report on teen

volunteerism seems especially appropriate as we struggle each spring and summer with ways to involve our youth in community service.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore 21202 (410) 783-5100

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