Obvious and Unexpected: The Benefits of Volunteering for Youth
Research shows that volunteering helps improve employability and acts as a route to employment – among other positive outcomes
By Melanie Hientz
Weeding an organic farm in Costa Rica with a machete. Fertilizing the soil with cow dung. Eating dinner on a mountaintop with strangers from around the world.
All things I never thought I’d experience – and all of which took place on a single volunteer trip after graduating high school almost 15 years ago.
At the time, I thought the whole thing was just an amazing experience in a neat place. So I was amused when I found myself drawing on that story in a job interview – with Volunteer Canada.
Those days in rural South America had more of an impact on me than I had thought.
Why would a young person volunteer in the first place?
In 2010, Volunteer Canada undertook a pan-Canadian study, Bridging the Gap: Enriching the Volunteer Experience to Build a Better Future for Our Communities.[i] I helped co-ordinate the research component of the study, and guide the roll-out of a series of subsequent Building the Bridge tools for volunteers and volunteer-involving organizations. Bridging the Gap explored the key motivations for volunteering among a number of Canadian cohorts, including youth. It revealed what Canadians are looking for in a volunteer experience today, and how organizations are engaging volunteers. The findings? There are a number of reasons why young people volunteer: professional, social and personal in nature.
The professional benefits are likely obvious to you – young people can improve their skills, network, maybe even make connections with an organization, or in an area, where they could one day work.
The social benefits are also deep and impactful. People become close with one another by going through things together – and volunteer experiences can be some of the best shared experiences, full of challenges and successes. Plus, it can grant you access to worlds you might never otherwise see.
The personal benefits, meanwhile, are some of the most profound – and often overlooked. A young person can really learn about themselves, and figure out what they want – and don’t want – out of life, by taking on volunteer opportunities. It builds character. It shows you your strengths and weaknesses.
A national study in England found that youth volunteered for reasons that were altruistic first, then instrumental, in this order: to help someone in their community; to learn new skills; to respond to their needs or skills; to help gain experience to benefit their future career.[ii]
It makes sense that a lot of young people would volunteer simply because it helps later in life with job security and networking – but it has a ream of other hidden benefits too.
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A relative of mine took business administration in undergrad and went on to start a landscaping business with a friend. A couple of years earlier, during university, he had become curious about firefighting – a childhood dream of his – so he signed on as a volunteer firefighter. Today, he’s 10 years into an amazing career with a fire department near Vancouver.
Studies have even shown that volunteering contributes to feelings of great confidence in youth, making them feel more employable. Plus, employers have highlighted that volunteering is looked upon favourably on a CV, and that positive work ethic such as self-motivation is modelled in employees that have volunteered.[iii] An American study recently tracked 70,000 jobless people for 10 years (between 2002 and 2012), and found that those who volunteered had a 27% better chance of finding a job than those that didn’t.[iv] There is considerable other research showing that volunteering helps improve employability and acts as a route to employment.
Literature also shows that the effects of volunteering on gaining employment vary according to a number of factors (demographics, frequency of engagement, duration of unemployment, motivations for volunteering and the type of volunteer role), many of which have a combined effect.[v] In other words, it is not a clear link to employment. However, several studies suggest that volunteering does, in the long term, contribute to “individual employability” factors, as it can enhance knowledge and skills, build work attitudes and confidence, and improve mental and physical health and well-being.[vi]
Plus, Canadians are good volunteers
We’re polite and friendly, sure, but did you know Canadians are also some of the most engaged volunteers in the world? In 2013, more than 12.7 million Canadians volunteered – that’s 44% of the entire population. The federal government’s 2013 General Social Survey – Giving, Volunteering and Participating found that Canadian youth stand apart, volunteering more than any other age group at 53% of Canadians aged 15-24 volunteering.[vii]
That said, in many of these studies – as is the case with most academic research – context matters. Canadian youth have the highest volunteer rate among cohorts, for instance, while British youth (aged 16 to 25) volunteer less than most other age groups.[viii] Why? In Canada, there is a requirement in some school districts to perform community service to graduate from high school. The same Canadian youth also had a below average contribution of annual volunteer hours (126, compared to the national average of 154).[ix] Mandatory volunteering in high school might partially explain this coupling of high youth volunteer rates and low hours contributed.
So we’re not off the hook quite yet…
In the end, the benefits of volunteering are as diverse as the motivations that get youth involved in the first place.
But let’s consider one last thought: it’s more than fine if young people’s decision to volunteer has nothing to do with them. Our modern society – educated and advanced as it is – is plagued with social justice issues, problems so complex that it’s nearly impossible for the public and non-profit sectors to solve them alone. The environmental crisis, mental health challenges, addiction, homelessness – the list goes on. The world needs volunteers.
In fact, research has found a positive relationship between youth volunteering and increased civic engagement later in life.[x] Volunteering influences peoples’ development, not just their experience. Volunteers are getting out to vote, engaged in community service and contributing to building strong communities.
Another research review of student volunteers highlighted the more frequently a person volunteered, the more likely they were to perceive altruistic motivations and benefits. In other words, the more someone is engaged in volunteering, the greater the impact they feel on personal and social levels.[xi]
Youth may find their reason to volunteer is simply to help people, give their time to something positive and meaningful, or make the world a better place. But they shouldn’t be surprised if they end up helping themselves in the process, too.
I started volunteering because I thought it would be fun – a cool way to meet some interesting people and learn new things. As it turns out, it fundamentally shaped my career path. And today, I’m working at a university I once dreamed of attending, working on projects I believe are making real, important social change – and the future looks just as bright.
Melanie Hientz is the CHEQ/EDI Implementation Lead at the Human Early Learning Partnership, a collaborative, interdisciplinary research unit based at the University of British Columbia. She has worked in research and evaluation in poverty reduction, and as manager of special projects at Volunteer Canada. Hientz has Master in Geography and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.
Collamer, N. (2013). “Proof that volunteering pays off for job hunters”. Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Forbes www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/06/24/proof-that-volunteering-pays-off-for-job-hunters/#6cc613a9753a
Corden, A, Sainsbury, R, 2005. “Volunteering for employment skills: A qualitative research study”, York: Social Policy Research Unit, University of York.
Hart, D., Atkins, R., & Donnelly, T. M. (2006). “Community service and moral development”. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 633-656).
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Metz, E., McLellan, J., & Youniss, J. (2003). “Types of voluntary service and adolescents’ civic development”. Journal of Adolescent Research, 18, 188-203.
Holdsworth, C. (2010). Student volunteers: A national profile. London: Volunteering England/Institute of Volunteering Research
Kamerade, D and Paine, A. (2014). Volunteering and employability: implications for policy and practice. Voluntary Sector Review Vol. 5, no 2, 264-5.
McQuaid, RW, Lindsay, C, 2005. “The concept of employability”, Urban Studies 42, 2, 197–219.
Nichols, G, Ralston, R, 2011. “Social inclusion through volunteering: the legacy potential of the 2012 Olympic Games”, Sociology: The Journal of the British Sociological Association 45, 5, 900–14 in Kamerade, D and Paine, A. (2014).
Paine, Angela, et al. (2013). “Does volunteering improve employability? Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey”. Third Sector Research Centre. Retrieved August 21, 2017 from www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/documents/tsrc/working-papers/working-paper-100.pdf
Smith, et. al (2010). “Motivations and Benefits of Student Volunteering: Comparing Regular, Occasional, and Non-Volunteers in Five Countries”. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research. Vol.1, no.1. 77.
Spera, Chris, et al. (2013). Volunteering as a pathway to employment. Corporation for National and Community Service. Retrieved August 21, 2017 from www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/upload/employment_research_report.pdf
“The 2013 General Social Survey – Giving, Volunteering and Participating (GSS GVP)”. Table 119-0009. Retrieved August 21, 2017 from www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26;jsessionid=0BA6843B97CF3D31D2B6F99EAC2542E8?lang=eng&retrLang=eng&id=1190009&tabMode=dataTable&p1=-1&p2=31&srchLan=-1
Volunteer Canada (2010). “Bridging the Gap: Enriching the Volunteer Experience to Build a Better Future for Our Communities”. Retrieved August 21, 2017 from volunteer.ca/btg