Archive | January, 2013

Factors Impacting Youth Providing Indirect Volunteering: Strengths and Challenges for Engagement

24 Jan

In my previous post about tracking outcomes of awareness raised, I alluded to my Masters research about youth engaged in indirect volunteering and the outcomes of their work. I am finally happy to share highlights of the results with my network of professionals who work with youth volunteers. A link to the presentation can be found here:

The purpose of my research was to investigate issues related to indirect volunteering of youth volunteers by identifying strengths, challenges, and exploring themes that have and themes that have not yet emerged in prior literature on youth volunteers before.

The following two definitions were explored in greatest detail in the thesis:


Non-front line, volunteer does not directly work with the client.

Awareness raising and fundraising are two common examples.


Role ambiguity is defined as the extent to which volunteers are “unclear about their responsibilities and the extent to which role-related information is unclear” (Fried et al., 2008, p. 307).

Role ambiguity negatively affects the retention of volunteers, but research supporting this finding has included adult participants only (Merrel, 2000; Ross, Greenfield, & Bennet, 1999).

To investigate all relevant topics for indirect volunteering of youth volunteers, three research questions were asked:


—What motivations, barriers to engagement, and opportunities for leadership affect youth volunteers who participate in indirect forms of service?

—How does role ambiguity impact indirect forms of service?

—What strengths and challenges affect youth volunteers who provide indirect forms of service?


—Six core themes emerged from the data analysis.

—Three themes reflected common topics from the literature review:  motivations to volunteer, leadership opportunities, and barriers to engagement.

—Role ambiguity emerged as a core theme for youth who are indirect volunteers.

—Two new themes emerged that are unique to this research: empowerment and power imbalances, and the meaning that youth ascribe to their volunteer roles.

These next images represent the core themes and sub themes that emerged from the literature. (Note: all diagrams can be enlarged by clicking on the image).

main n sub themes 1

main n sub themes 2

The following diagram illustrates that the work of indirect youth volunteers often has to go through many channels to impact the intended clients. The results of this work often takes a long time to become apparent.

Fig 1

To explain, youth volunteers impact the service agencies where they volunteer. At the same time the service agency may empower them by offering clear roles and responsibilities that are supported by access to resources, teamwork, and engaged stakeholders. Alternatively, agencies may disempower their volunteers by offering vague volunteer positions with no clear outcomes. Male youth, younger youth volunteers, and youth who do not speak English can also be disempowered.  Often the volunteer’s work must be channeled through governments and other NGOs. Finally, the channeled work of the volunteers may impact the actual service communities, which are sometimes within their own municipality, but also may be far away in another country.

The next diagram is a conceptualization of the interrelatedness of all themes that emerged from the data analysis. There are two problematic paths and one successful path for engaging youth volunteers and achieving meaningful outcomes with their work.

Fig 2

If an aspiring youth volunteer is faced with barriers to engagement, they cannot volunteer. If their motivations are fulfilled, they land a public education role. They are then either empowered or disempowered. If they face additional barriers to engagement when volunteering, they fail to see the outcomes of their work and may not accomplish outcomes at all. If they do get feedback and are clear about their work, the service outcomes are met and are clear to the volunteer.

It is also important that organizations have a clear understanding of the barriers that create role ambiguity, factors that improve clarity, and the outcomes of these actions. Factors that improve clarity can be accomplished by both staff and youth volunteers as this next diagram demonstrates.

Fig 3

One of the research sub questions asked what strengths and challenges youth face that are unique to indirect volunteering.  Out of the research I came up with strengths and challenges for youth who are indirect service volunteers.

Strengths & Challenges 1

Strengths & Challenges 2

These strengths and challenges should be used as a guide of methods to pursue and actions to avoid by organizations striving to better engage youth in indirect volunteering.

More information about the outcomes with the GTA organizations can be found in the full thesis here:


A Portrait of Awareness Raised

20 Jan

When volunteers raise awareness, what does it look like? Can you define the amount of awareness that was raised? Can you see it? Touch it? Is it a nice tactile and tangible outcome that you can hold in the palm of your hand? For most of us, no. It feels like a vague concept.

Those of us entrenched in the business of “raising awareness” typically have a love-hate relationship with the term. We love the infinite potential for outcomes ranging from improving programs to influencing policy. We can engage any number of people in a public audience who may en masse pay our message forward to others or self-organize to create a follow-up campaign or even an entire movement.   We hate the ambiguity of not knowing exactly how motivated our audience is to pay our message forward. How many members of our audiences learned from us, received our message, and committed to a follow-up action? What were the differences in learning for each audience member? As for larger outcomes, what slice of the public influence pie did we have in improving policies and programs? Do we know exactly how many people benefited from these improvements? Can we quantify and qualify those improvements for each and every individual impacted?

When I ask myself these questions, I like to think of this image and quote from Advertisers Without Borders. To me, it captures the dilemmas that come with trying to track all outcomes of raising awareness:


“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

It is difficult to capture the linear relationships between every individual stakeholder of an awareness raising event or movement. This can create a sense of ambiguity for volunteers at the origin of the awareness raising activity hoping to have a clear picture of the outcomes of their work, especially when their work is international in scope. It is important for organizations to communicate back to their volunteers all available information about audience feedback, policy change, program enhancements and service population outcomes. Additionally, organizations can help their volunteers fill in all pieces of the awareness raised puzzle by guiding their volunteers in dialogue that helps them visualize and co-construct the connections between all stakeholders in the awareness raising network and really see the full outcomes of their work.

When completing my Masters thesis back in 2011 about youth volunteers and the outcomes of their indirect service work, I identified awareness raising and fundraising as two types of volunteer activities common to youth and explored the ambiguity dilemmas they identified as well as solutions to help make the outcomes of their work more clear. I did so by conducting in-depth interviews with youth engaged in indirect volunteering and asked them several questions helping them identify all of the stakeholders of their work as well as all of their anticipated outcomes for each stakeholder. One of the results was a framework modelled closely after Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological System’s Theory that places youth in the centre of their indirect service network with the outcomes of their work trailing from stakeholders in their micro-system out to those that fall within the macro-system of their service network. A survey and sample framework modelled after those developed for my Masters thesis is provided below, and can also be viewed as the second of my two approaches to evaluating outcomes of youth volunteer projects here.


What impact do you imagine your awareness raising and fundraising efforts via club meetings and campaigns have had on the following communities:

  • —The members of your youth group?
  • —Students in your school who have participated in your activities?
  • —Teachers/professors in your school who have participated in your activities?
  • —The greater population of local youth volunteers within this organization?
  • —The greater population of all local staff and adult volunteers within this organization?
  • —The greater municipality in which this youth group is located?
  • —Staff/volunteers from this (or a partner) organization providing the services abroad that your activities supported?
  • —The vulnerable population being served in the international communities you supported?
  • —All citizens within the international communities you supported?
  • —Other service partners/stakeholders working on the ground in the international communities supported by your activities?

Sample framework: