Finding young volunteers big job for 'non-profits', writes Raewyn Court.
Attracting young volunteers is one of the biggest challenges facing the non-profit sector during the economic downturn, and organisations are racking their brains to find new ways to revitalise themselves.
Rosemarie Dawson, trustee of the New Zealand Association Resource Centre Trust, says volunteer numbers are declining and it is becoming harder to recruit younger members.
With the many demands on an individual's time in today's climate, associations and charities need to become culturally aligned to new and younger audiences, she says.
"If an association's or charity's mission does not resonate with a younger demographic audience then it will have difficulty in attracting a younger volunteer or membership base," Dawson says.
"Numbers of registered charities have increased over the past few years and it is harder to fight for 'share of voice' and compete with other non-profits [not-for-profit organisations].
"Many non-profits are still not embracing channels of communication where a younger audience is having conversations and they ignore this at their peril."
The trust provides support, advice and professional development opportunities to the non-profit sector.
Dawson says the trust can connect those volunteering in charities and associations with experts and leaders who are in a position to provide good, solid advice and techniques in attracting younger staff, members, board members and volunteers.
The trust identified with its own need to attract younger volunteers by scheduling Josh Levent of youth leadership organisation Aiesec New Zealand to speak at the People by Association human resources conference for non-profits last month.
Levent, Aiesec's vice-president of organisational development, says young people bring energy and enthusiasm, new ideas and perspectives, technological literacy and social networking skills - especially in understanding the dynamics of social media - to non-profits.
"At university age, many young people are looking for volunteer opportunities, and this is the perfect time to reach them," he says.
"University is a chance for many students to really find themselves as individuals, and university courses, new friendships, social clubs, religious, cultural, political and other interest societies and volunteering all provide the opportunity to do that.
"Clubs and societies require volunteers to at least manage their operations, and this often leads to other volunteering opportunities.
"Aiesec, for example, provides students with international volunteering opportunities over the summer, and major global non-profits such as Oxfam have societies on campus that engage students and may lead to volunteering for the organisation," Levent says.
"And universities are increasingly encouraging students to engage in volunteering as a means to becoming more employable upon graduation."
Non-profit organisations that have particular appeal to young people are those run by young people, says Levent, and in New Zealand these include Aiesec, the P3 Foundation and the Global Poverty Project.
"Aiesec offers thousands of different kinds of short-term volunteering opportunities across the globe each year that are perfect for young people on a gap year - those looking for short-term volunteering work before moving on to work or university.
"The work ranges from volunteering in an orphanage in China, to increasing HIV/Aids awareness in Malaysia to teaching school students about different cultures in Ukraine.
"Global Volunteer Network and International Student Volunteers are two other non-profits that offer similar opportunities," he says.
"Those are international but within New Zealand, the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch is a great initiative young people can get involved in for some one-off volunteering."
Encouragingly, Levent believes that for the non-profits, finding the right people is easier than it seems.
He says that more than 99 per cent of young people in New Zealand aged 20-24 are on Facebook, and that advertising to specific niche groups is very easy on Facebook.
"The absolute best way to do this is to hire a savvy young person to manage the Facebook presence of the organisation," he says. "Creating a Facebook page and keeping it fresh with new and interesting content makes it appealing to the 18-24 year-old students the non-profit wants as volunteers. Using targeted advertisements is an add-on to a good Facebook page. The underlying rule is to create value, so non-profits need to find ways to make their issue interesting, heart-warming or heart-wrenching, easy to understand and comfortable for young people to share.
"And by using Facebook it becomes really easy to measure engagement through metrics such as the number of times a piece of content is 'shared' or 'liked'."
Levent says some honours organisations and leadership programmes at universities even require their members to volunteer, so these organisations are great gateways to volunteers. "Most importantly, young people respond to other young people, so hiring a young person to manage social media marketing to engage more young people is ideal.
"Many non-profits believe they have to "compete" with businesses to retain talent, but I don't think this is the right approach," Levent says. "Instead, non-profits should look at what their best people look for in their work and do more of that.
"People who volunteer or work in non-profits are passionate about what they do, and more young people are looking for a cause to champion rather than just living out the career scripts of their parents.
"Packaging the cause of the organisation in a way that inspires passion is the best way to keep good people."
Levent suggests communicating "why" rather than "what" the organisation does. "Aside from being meaningful, work also needs to be fun, interesting and provide opportunities for variety or mobility."