12 Winning Strategies for Non-Profits to Engage Young People

VFA just had our annual benefit dinner—a night where our friends and supporters come together to raise money for programs that serve refugee and immigrant youth and families. It was amazing to see the show of support from folks who believe in our mission and work. We broke our all time fundraising record too!

Hosting a benefit dinner is like running a marathon. You have to train hard—mentally and physically—for the long footrace, but a huge sense of accomplishment and humility overtakes you when you finally cross the finish line. Then you collapse from exhaustion and lack of food or water since you were busy running around all night long and you swear to yourself that you will never ever do this again! And then someone says to you “But omg, next year will be way funner!” and you want to punch them in the face until you realize they are probably right. But then you remember that at age 30 your body simply takes longer to recover, which makes you hate your 21-year-old self for having so much energy. This makes you cranky. Or maybe it’s the result of sleep deprivation. At 7 whole hours, I slept more the next morning than I did the previous three months combined—it was magical.

Anyways, thank you to all of our volunteers who stayed with us until the end of the night. You are all magical too and I am grateful for your support. Last week, I wrote about why we need to distinguish between youth engagement and volunteerism. If society keeps on mistreating young volunteers, they will one day gain sentience and rebel against their masters (I’ve seen this happen before in the Matrix, Terminator and BSG). Here are 12 proven strategies to avoid the apocalypse and better engage youth.

1. Stop saying “We need to get the youth involved.” Youth are already super involved in a ton of things. Just because they are not involved with your cause, does not mean they are not involved in their community. Quit guilting them!

2. Cut the ego and practice humility. A couple years ago a group of young leaders were working with an elder to plan a Lunar New Year Celebration. After some minor disagreements, the elder became enraged. He started yelling, calling people names, and flipped over a car. Although he later apologized about the car, we must remember to exercise respect and humility when working with others—young and old.

3. Volunteering isn’t the only way for young people to make a difference. Community organizations are not the gatekeepers of social change. Youth can help their community in many ways, like finding a high-paying job with an employee match and donating to non-profits. Or voting.

4. Stop thinking that we are doing them favors. The panel was a wonderful example of youth taking the initiative to learn and grow. Community organizations need to extend the courtesy and invite youth to share their wisdom with us so that we can learn and grow too.

5. Listen to and support their interests. We’re always asking young people to volunteer or donate to our causes, but we need to recognize they have interests and priorities too. Find what out they are!

6. Focus on vision and values alignment. I recently had a volunteer ask me, “So what does VFA do?” All too often we toss volunteers into various roles without fully establishing a shared sense of vision and purpose.

7. Sponsor student associations and clubs. Community organizations need to leverage our resources to support youth-driven activities—especially when they align with our mission and vision.

8. Volunteer at youth-led events. If we have the time to ask young people to volunteer for our events, then we need to step up and volunteer for theirs. Start with the question “How can we support you?”

9. Talk to them! Many youth tell me they want to connect with professionals who share their culture and identity. But I got a 3.0 in chemistry and ended up in non-profit work, so I generally refer them to a pharmacist instead.

10. Do not add youth to your board of directors! Being a board member entails legal and financial duties over the organization. What if the organization gets sued, finances go south, or the Executive Director is caught embezzling money to fund his chocolate addiction? Exercise caution.

11. But do create a youth advisory council! A better idea is to have youth inform decision making at your organization, without the full responsibilities and risks of board membership. Youth Councils can advise on all sorts of issues—academic, economic, social—and at the same time develop critical leadership skills.

12. Treat youth like donors. Non-profits are always checking in with their donors and sponsors. We need to do the same with our emerging leaders. Meet with them every now and then to simply listen and learn about what’s happening in their lives.

Now that you know these 12 winning strategies, take them back to your organization and see how well you are doing. Good luck and let me know how it goes! Already doing all 12? Then congratulations, you are a Level 85 Community Developer and have unlocked your wizard badge!

Got more winning strategies? Share them in the comments below!

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