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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:


Indirect Service Volunteering – Pursuing Strategies for Understanding Outcomes

5 Nov

After a long vacation away from my blog I return in awe of all I have learned about indirect service or “macro-volunteering” in my academic and work environments. One remarkable finding is that reflection exercises, guided by the appropriate probing questions can help volunteers become more clear about the outcomes of their indirect service work. Guided reflection can help volunteers visualize how their service outputs travel through the channels of all of their target stakeholders to reach their intended clients.

Volunteers engaging in reflection exercises to become more clear about their work is one goal of Community Service Learning at Wilfrid Laurier University. While I am impressed by the demonstrated success of the Community Service Learning model, I find myself hungry for more examples of the tools and strategies that organizations working with indirect service volunteers use to make the outcomes of macro-level service volunteering  more clear. I encourage readers of this post to share those strategies.

The Top 5 Reasons Volunteers Should Journal

3 May

As someone who values reflection as a process for bringing clarity to any professional situation, I am happy to share the top 5 reasons why I have found journaling to be beneficial to volunteers:

1)     Journaling is the most authentic (and most meaningful) self-evaluation tool a volunteer can use.

2)     It is an avenue for volunteers to document some of those “aha” moments that are unique to every volunteer challenge. These moments can be easily recalled later when brainstorming how to respond to a service need.

3)     Journaling is another way to keep a record of experiences for the purpose of career development. These experiences can be more readily referred to in a resume or interview when they have been documented.

4)     Journaling offers volunteers a personalized narrative history of their lives as volunteers. A volunteer’s journal is a keepsake of some of their most touching moments with clients, staff, fellow volunteers, and the community at large.

5)     There are many well known mental health benefits associated with journaling, including reduced stress and improved capacity to retain long-term memory.

Developing Customized Toolkits for Your Volunteer Facilitators

3 May

Here are a few tips to consider when developing customized toolkits for your volunteer facilitators:

1)      Make sure the tools selected fit the program that the facilitation project is part of. Try to increase your facilitator tool search to include existing facilitator activities that are customized to the specific type of service that the facilitation is needed for.

2)      Make sure the mission, vision, and values of your organization are reflected in the toolkit. Your organization’s mission, vision, and values should be included at the beginning of the toolkit and should be followed closely by the team developing the toolkit. The toolkit developers should prioritize facilitation tools that best reflect all three. When done correctly, the volunteer facilitators will have a greater understanding of how their role as facilitators helps your organization realize its mission, vision, and values.

3)       Make sure that the facilitation tools selected recognize and enhance the skills that each volunteer facilitator brings to the table. Instead of selecting tools that limit facilitators to structured facilitation questions, provide them with tools that help them customize questions through their own inquiry that are best suited for each facilitation process they lead. For an example, see The Art of Powerful Questions.

This resource includes a host of questions for your volunteers to ask themselves before facilitating so they can master the art of asking good questions. It also includes malleable, open-ended questions they can customize to fit the project.

I would like to leave you with an important recommendation when developing customized facilitator toolkits for your volunteers. Include them in the process! No volunteer facilitator toolkit is more customized to the project than one created by volunteer facilitators for volunteer facilitators. They will feel all the more connected to the facilitation content and will feel proud of the final product they all played a role in constructing. As a volunteer contributing to my current assignment, I do feel a sense of pride in the toolkit I am developing and feel closely connected to the content.

Reviving the Debate: The Economic Value of Volunteering

19 Feb

While I recall models I have worked with in the past quantifying volunteer service outputs I want to revive the debate about the pursuit of models that measure the economic value of volunteering. Several months ago Volunteer Canada released a discussion paper about this topic because there is growing interest in the public to “know the quantifiable economic value of the work volunteers do” The discussion paper lead to a presentation of the pros and cons of this pursuit because:

The “ability to demonstrate the full social and economic value of volunteer contributions – to the individuals who are directly served, to the organizations they work with, to the community at large, and to the volunteers themselves – is fraught with many practical and conceptual challenges.”

While communities, organizations, and volunteers themselves would benefit from evidence of volunteer work expressed as expenses from the organization, articulated social capital, and tangible service outputs, there is a real fear that standardized models capturing the economic value of volunteer contributions would “devalue the generosity of volunteers” and omit the value that each volunteer individually assigns to the volunteer experience themselves. The same can be said for the value that organizations and community members served assign to each and every volunteer experience.

So, considering the arguments above, my question is this. Can a model be developed capturing the economic value of volunteering without omitting the “values” that are unique to every volunteer experience?  

The discussion paper from Volunteer Canada can be found here. Captures the Power of Volunteers

8 Dec

An intriguing volunteer trend has made me reflect recently on the value of tracking both qualitative and quantitative data about volunteers. recently launched a movement in partnership with the Corporate Council on Volunteering called Power of the Hour, whereby both workplaces and individuals are being challenged to pledge as many volunteer hours as possible in order to reach a goal of engaging Canadians in 2,000,000 volunteer hours in 2010. Hours pledged by workplaces and individuals are being tracked at here and there are currently over 1,000,000 hours pledged. The live list of pledges is updated very frequently and is an exciting and motivating tool for anyone who is interested in volunteerism or who is looking to volunteer.

I also reflected on the challenge of attributing value to an hour when it is sometimes difficult to understand the impact that 1 hour from 20 volunteers or 20 hours from 1 volunteer has on an individual, or the greater community. This reminds me of a blog that was posted a few months ago from Volunteer Vancouver  where the following comment was made about tracking volunteer hours:

“Measuring hours is like comparing how quickly I can fix a computer to how quickly someone who actually knows how to fix computers does it. It tells us absolutely NOTHING about what work was done…So instead of measuring how many hours your volunteers work with you, why don’t you measure what impact they had on your organization, your clients and your mission?”

In a reply to this post, one reader commented:
“…the value of that person’s volunteer work may lie in that person’s increase self worth or sense of self efficacy. It may lie in connectedness that that person now has with a greater community. But attaching a value to either of those is difficult.
So how do we measure successful volunteer engagement? Ask. Ask the program managers supervising the volunteers what value has been created by working with volunteers. Ask the volunteers how they have been impacted.”

Clearly it is important for all stakeholders in the volunteer experience to understand the value of an hour, and most importantly to ensure that each hour volunteered is in fact valuable for all. is working to ensure that this is the case by encouraging all who pledge their hours online to “create an action list and log their hours with descriptions and photos.” With action lists that will hopefully capture over 2,000,000 hours volunteered by Canadians one can only imagine the innovative and powerful volunteer activities that Canadians will share with each other. I consider this a promising example of tracking volunteer engagement that represents an alternative to the recommendations suggested by the two bloggers I quoted earlier from the Volunteer Vancouver blog.

It is also important, as I stated at the beginning of this post, to consider the value of quantitative data tracked about volunteers. While the number of volunteers engaged and hours tracked may not tell us much about the work that was involved with any particular volunteer activity, people do hold stock in the power of an hour. With so many Canadians engaged in this quickly evolving challenge many more will be motivated to jump on board to ensure the target is reached. With this in mind, I do also hope that those same volunteers will engage in as much sharing of their volunteer activities as possible with project descriptions, photos, and narratives of memorable moments.