Why We Need to Engage Young People in Service NOW

As the mother of four, I often find myself saying that it is a hard time to be a parent, not because I have four, although that is indeed a challenge many days. I say it in many different circles and for many different reasons beyond the sheer number of schedules I must coordinate. I say it because I believe that connecting our children to service is one of the most important foundational things we can do for them as parents, AND because I believe we have an obligation as a society to make sure that connection is made. 

First, the benefits to youth of engaging in service are numerous, including helping them build stronger relationships, increase their self-esteem, heighten their academic success, develop their leadership potential, and reduce their engagement in risky behaviors. All these well-known benefits are promising unto themselves, but there are also current realities uniquely in play for this generation that all who are trying to raise them didn’t experience and which make this work even more important. 

The “selfie generation“ – bombarded with egocentric messaging and instant gratification – need counter forces in their lives that disrupt and challenge those norms and expectations, that remind them that the end game is much further out for all of us than the next Instagram story cycle, but that seemingly small choices now will add up, because they always do. Further, with the details of world events, climate change, daily traumas, and more at their fingertips 24 hours a day, it is our job to balance what they read and see with messages of hope and a belief that they can help write the story of a brighter future for themselves and for humanity. Without that, it is a time when young people can become overwhelmed and anxious about what lies ahead of them. And there is already enough pressure as a kid today.

With steep declines in empathy reported over the past 10 years, there is also a sense of urgency to this work. Increased reliance on technology for communication, and associated decrease in meaningful human interactions, along with a desensitization to tragic events and information saturation, have seemingly contributed to this decline. But we know that meaningful service experiences, especially when done regularly, can greatly contribute to the development of empathy, an essential human trait that must be cultivated for a high-functioning, civil society to flourish.

In addition to the role parents play in this equation, those of us who are nonprofit leaders also hold the unique position of deciding when, where, and how our youth can engage in meaningful service. As such, their future rests partially in our hands. We have an opportunity to be builders of hope, action and civic engagement in a way that impacts the issues we work to address through our organizations every day, both now and for generations to come.

Further, engaging young people in our work at an early age not only benefits them and our society but also builds our pipelines of future donors and volunteers. We know that young people who engage in service or more likely to serve as adults. We know that in every income category, those who volunteered as youth give more than those who did not, and that impact increases with income. We know there is an overlap between where people volunteer and where they provide their financial support. In other words, it just makes sense when we think about our own capacity-building efforts.

At PGK, we often talk about a different triple bottom line in our work. Our work of engaging young people in meaningful service helps them, helps the organizations they come to know and serve, and helps our larger society and world. The way I see it, if we want to invest in something, I say we invest in finding more ways to show young people that they have everything they need to shape a promising tomorrow. They have access to information, ideas and communities that have never been available before. Let’s help them use all that to build a brighter future. After all, they ARE our future. 

For more ways to engage young volunteers in your work or to talk to a member of our staff about how to do so, please contact us. We are here to connect great nonprofits with passionate youth and families ready to get started making the world a better place.