Tips for Engaging Volunteers in your Youth Program

Youth programs have a limited number of staff members to serve the many youth they serve. For example, a youth ministry program at a church may have one youth pastor to serve the 30 to 60 to 100 youth they serve each week.

We know that positive change in a persons (youths) life frequently occurs in and through relationships. Being greatly outnumbered as a youth worker can hinder the success of your program.

That is where volunteers play a significant role in any successful youth program. Having caring adults who can assist the staff in executing the program, building relationships with the youth and facilitating activities allows the staff to maintain some sanity and have a positive impact more youth.

I have been the youth worker who recruited and coordinated volunteers and I have been the volunteer engaging in a youth program in my free time. Because I have experience on both sides, I want to share a few tips to help you engage and utilize your volunteers to the fullest potential for the success of your program.

Note: I am not going to cover background checks and specific safety training but remember, the safety of your youth is your first priority.

  • Provide a clear overview of the program, your mission and what a typical day¬† or volunteer experience will look like. I have had volunteers who showed up with certain expectations. They thought kids would run up and hug them, want to play games with them and they would leave with the kids saying what a difference they made in their lives. Then they arrived and that was not the case, it was harder than they anticipated. The clearer we can be in regards to expectations, the more we set our volunteers up for success.
  • Get to know your volunteers. The experiences I have had where the coordinator has taken time to get to know me have been the most rewarding. I am not saying become best friends with every volunteer, but learn their names, why they are interested in volunteering with youth, what they are passionate about. You may even identify additional opportunities for them to connect with the program based off of skills and interest they have. I volunteered as a mentor for the juvenile courts a few years ago and the coordinator took time to meet me for lunch to discuss the program and get to know me. She then learned of my background with youth and I was able to provide additional training for her and her staff.
  • Connect volunteer to specific tasks or roles. I have been apart of too many volunteerexperiences where volunteers show up to an event and are told, “have fun.” Some volunteers will jump right in, others will turn into deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Providing specific tasks helps them connect, feel useful and accomplish tasks you need completed. There is nothing worse as a program coordinator to have enough volunteers but still feel like you are doing everything yourself. Have volunteers sign youth into the event, help with sound or lighting, facilitate ice breakers or lead small group discussions.
  • Communicate frequently with your volunteers. Volunteers are busy with full-time jobs, families, school etc. Frequently communicating with them through short emails or text messages reminding them of upcoming events, program updates and appreciation allows them to stay connected and see the bigger picture of the program. I volunteer with the youth group at my church and every week I receive an email talking about the upcoming gathering and even includes a basic outline of the night and our roles as volunteers. I love it! This allows me to have an understanding of the objective of the night and my role. I arrive and can plug right in and support the staff in achieving a successful gathering.
  • Ask them for feedback. Volunteers bring various perspectives to the table based on their background and experiences. Ask them for feedback, they may help you see ways to improve your program or connections you can make in the community that you did not see.
  • Provide training and resources. Do not assume everyone is gifted with engaging youth or know the basics of adolescent development. Take time to provide basic training throughout the year to help them understand youth and how they can have a positive impact on their lives.
  • Appreciate them. I am not talking about once a year giving them a thank you note. Each time they volunteer say thanks. Have some of the youth help you make thank you cards to send to volunteers to show their appreciation. Let them know the impact they are having on the program and the youth.

I could add more to this list but I want to know what tips do you have for working with and engaging volunteers in a youth program or event?