Youth Washing – are you guilty?

Andy Fryar February 1, 2010 5
Youth Washing – are you guilty?


By Guest Hot Topic writer Catherine (Cat) Williams

Introductory note from OzVPM Director Andy Fryar:

This month I am pleased to introduce OzVPM Hot Topic readers to a new contributor in our field, Catherine (Cat) Williams. Cat has been gaining some notice for presentations she has been making around the Brisbane area about Volunteer Management, and as a member of Generation Y, I was keen to invite Cat to contribute some ‘first hand’ thoughts and challenges about how to engage younger volunteers

Catherine is the cofounder of a new youth empowerment campaign, ‘Enough Said’.  She has been the Campaigns Manager for the Oaktree Foundation’s Queensland branch. The Oaktree Foundation is Australia’s first and largest entirely youth-run aid and development organisation.

Catherine coordinated  Queensland’s section of national campaigns, as well as hosting advocacy and leadership events, such as the Leaders for Change Conference at Parliament House. Her previous experience includes domestic and international experience in the humanitarian sector, including most recently working as volunteer coordinator with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Syria, and extensive facilitation experience through previous volunteer management, campaigning and executive roles.


Walking the talk is a simple twist on an age-old adage, yet its familiarity belies its radical nature. If everyone acted upon their words, fundamental change would ensue.

Imagine the change in our sector if we actually started taking practical actions to implement some of the new thinking around youth engagement. Instead, at the moment I feel the sector is engaging in what I call youth-washing as it appears that there is a dearth of meaningful action which applies to this new thinking.

This lack of substantial change is undermining our ability to effectively capture a new generation, which reduces the dynamism in the volunteering sector.

My generation, the infamous Gen Y, have been poked, prodded and analysed to death and new management strategies abound. It has been widely acknowledged that young people conceptualise society and our role in it very differently to previous generations, because the contours of our lives are vastly different. In this way, we have a different concept of volunteering and how we incorporate it in our lives.

Yet despite this knowledge and the expressed wish to engage Gen Y, I still feel that many managers are reluctant to accept young people.

Whilst not being cynical enough to assign malign intentions or harp on about bogus intergenerational conspiracies; I generally find one of two attitudes present in volunteer managers.

The first group desires to contain young people rather than wishing to harness their skills and energy. It appears as though youth are wanted only because they are needed for future ‘viability’, rather than being wanted for their intrinsic value.

The second group contains people who appear to genuinely want to connect with young people but are overwhelmed by the depth of change required to create meaningful engagement. This often results in half-hearted attempts to connect with youth, but without transforming incumbent structures and traditional thinking.

On the whole, these two groups are ‘talking the talk’ but are stifled by their own agendas and history and this has been masking the true nature of the sector’s relationship with Gen Y. This is now becoming glaringly evident with the ever-widening chasm between theoretical knowledge on one side and a sincere commitment to practical application on the other.

Regardless of which group you sit in, this results in youth-washing. This is the superficial application of youth-orientated initiatives which are designed to appeal to the younger generation whilst leaving the traditional thinking and practices of volunteer management untouched. If this trend continues unabated, it will further the rift between dynamic youth-based volunteer initiatives and traditional practices, thereby undermining the overall effectiveness of the sector in coming years.

My aim here is not to disparage traditional thinking and processes; they have and are continuing to be advantageous in many instances. However survival is about adaptation, and at the moment the sector is only pretending to adapt whilst clinging tenaciously to the past.

The point is not to dogmatically demand a new approach be taken, but it is about calling on all of us to take an honest look at ourselves, as a sector to assess our own motives, inhibitions, goals and track record in achieving desired outcomes.

  • Are we clinging to the past or are we embracing a new generation?
  • Are we seeking genuine engagement or are we recruiting simply to survive?
  • Are we willing to make changes to remain current to a new generation or are we a ‘one-method kinda gal’, wedded to our practices and knowledge until death-do-us-part?

Let’s hear what you think


  1. Kat August 14, 2012 at 12:51 am - Reply

    To be honest, the article has a lot of rhetoric but doesn’t give any example of what you’re talking about. It’s very vague and woolly. I would of found this article interesting if had some substance to back it up, facts, stories, etc.

    Generally the problems employers have with Gen Y, if you ask; are those of entitlement, Gen Y feel entitled to benefits they haven’t earned or worked for. There is this attitude of intrinsic value that should be paid for upfront, which demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of business; you getting paid is dependent on what others consider is valuable enough to be paid for. That maybe a ‘traditional’ value , but it’s one business is dependent on. Business doesn’t survive unless it learns what works and what doesn’t work. And that process has always involved risk taking. It’s naive to think that business that survive, noting that over 70% fail are those who haven’t taken risks. Now, you get someone who has no experience of risk taking, and they expect you to let them run risks with your business, that’s more then a little arrogant. Does Gen Y put their morgage, their livelihood on the line in that risk taking? Or do they expect others to take the real risk whilst they ‘have a go’. ? And does Gen Y get that business is constantly changing, the idea that people ‘cling to the past’ may have been true some 50 years ago, but it’s a ludicrous notion in today’s workplace. I went to a ICT review meeting between software companies and a University. The major complaint of the companies was that Gen Y coming out of University are 10 years sometimes30 years behind the relevant learning that is needed in the workplace… do you think the current workplace wants to be ‘taught’ about what is ‘new’ from those who’s education is in many fields irrelevant and actually outdated?? A lot of what they get taught isn’t new or out of the box, but old and boxed and stored away.

    I’m putting a few points up here – I think the article is one sided.

  2. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 6 February 2010 by Jo Maiden, Volunteer Manager, Adelaide, Australia

    Cat – you are so on the mark! Only 2% of our organisation’s volunteers are under 35! I started planting a few seeds of change early last year, but it has pretty much been rhetoric – aside from our youth committee members ( which incidentally weren’t considered to be doing acts of volunteerism by certain staff segments!) we really haven’t made any inroads.

    The majority of staff consider that volunteers need to fit into existing models and roles within our organisation, and anything outside the square is just a bit scary/risky!! It’s all about service delivery, not looking beyond to what a different generation might be seeking from their volunteering, and how we can involve them in creating something just that bit more interesting and worthwhile.

    Any tips?!

  3. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 8 February 2010 by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Program Manager, Brisbane, Australia

    Great article Cat and some thought provoking questions for those of us in volunteer management. I am happy to report that where I work we have a strong representation of generation Yers volunteering.

    For me the key to this success has been flexibility. In fact last week I was chatting to one of our Y volunteers and I was curious as to why she travelled so far for her volunteering duties. She explained that she had tried to volunteer closer to home but no one was interested when she indicated that she wanted flexible shifts. Basically she couldn’t commit to the same day each week. I believe this is just one example of traditional thinking pertaining to youth volunteering. I also had a lovely moment last week at hospital orientation when presenting to staff on our volunteering program. I asked all present to close their eyes for a moment and picture a hospital volunteer. I then asked for someone to describe their picture and one person shouted out “an old lady”. I then asked our new volunteers to be upstanding. The 3 ladies who stood up were 19, 20 and 21! Of course I then explained that volunteering was diverse and the contribution form people regardless of their age valuable. I always get the same answer when I ask people to picture a hospital volunteer so it appears to be a public perception that generation Y are not being engaged in these typically “Traditional” volunteering roles.

    The University of Queensland ran a full day volunteering expo last year and it was a huge success with a packed hall of students looking for volunteering opportunities. The numbers are there. The willingness is there. But as you so rightly point out it is up to us to adapt and change some of our traditional mindset. I think the conversation about Gen Y volunteering is most effective when we are actually engaging in dialogue with generation Yers themselves so many thanks for your contribution Cat!

  4. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 8 February 2010 by Claire Teal, Volunteer Program Manager, Wellington, New Zealand

    Hi Cat

    I really enjoyed reading your ideas and think you’re hitting the nail on the head. I’d take what you’re saying even further, too, and say it applies to one of the prevailing views in our sector of all volunteers, including Generation Y-ers and what we bring.

    You ask whether we are clinging to the past or embracing a new generation, seeking genuine engagement or simply recruiting to survive. Certainly here in New Zealand, volunteering has been the subject of much media hype over the past couple of years. Aside from the obvious promotion of volunteering that comes from such exposure, many of these stories have linked to the global recession and how the newly unemployed have been turning to volunteering to keep their skills up while they are ‘between jobs’.

    This has had several spin-off effects:

    An increase in people seeking voluntary roles
    An increase in short-term volunteering, as people either try it out for size or are unsure of their future direction and availability
    An increase in people seeking skill-based volunteering roles, maybe through a corporate volunteering project
    A ‘busting’ of a lot of the stereotypes around volunteering (e.g. that it is solely the domain of the well-healed, older, white woman)
    These spin-off effects have created a challenging situation for organisations that work with volunteers. Volunteers are changing. Volunteering is changing. Come to think of it, it’s not like either of these things were ever static anyway, we just maybe treated them like they were. Clinging to the past and simply recruiting to survive will not and cannot work anymore.

    As organisations, and particularly as Volunteer Managers, we need to be prepared to take a critical look at our volunteer programmes and the values we’re really promoting. Are we prepared to realise that the current structure of our training programme makes it impossible for anyone who works or studies full-time to participate, or will we just leave it as it is because it works just fine, thanks? Are we prepared to ‘stocktake’ both our own roles and the roles our volunteers work in and be creative about developing new roles that capture the talent and passions of those prospective volunteers who want to work at our organisation? Or are we going to leave it in the ‘too hard’ basket? Are we prepared to trust the volunteers on our teams to run with the idea that might just take our organisation to the next level? Or are we going to reign them in and keep them doing the same-old because it’s just too much of a risk and the same-old doesn’t stop needing to be done just because a big idea shows up, you know…

    Creative volunteer team leadership is out there everywhere – it always has been, and I know it always will be. Fortunately, more and more examples of it are also emerging that can inspire and direct us. However, it seems to me that the argument against being creative about volunteer programmes and embracing change with them is that it is easier said than done. That’s also often how we wind up in that situation you mention, Cat, of being all about talking theories and not so much about practical action. The thing is, I completely understand that argument – it is all easier said than done! In my busy life as a Volunteer Manager, often the last thing I want to think about is how I develop that role, or how I work with that ridiculously talented individual. And I’m not for one minute trying to say that I’ve got it all sorted, either. What I can see is that if myself and others like me do not honestly seek to respond through action and attitude to the changing volunteering environment around us, we will be both youth-washing and generally volunteer-washing at the same time.

    Sorry to slightly pull the topic away from Gen Y volunteers to volunteering in the broader sense, Cat! The wider application of your thoughts just really rang out to me and I wanted to throw my 10 cents worth in the ring J

  5. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 8 February 2010 by Nicole Milazzo, Volunteer Program Manager, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Queensland

    A continuing trend this year, following on from 2009, is that our supply of Gen Y volunteer applicants outweighs Baby Boomers 5 to 1. 10% of our active volunteers are Gen Y. On average they volunteer with us for 10 months compared to 60 months for the Baby Boomers. Those figures are informing our future planning, but regardless of that, for any successful volunteer placement for ANY type of volunteer role, part of the recruitment process involves asking the volunteer what they want from their experience and then us finding or creating a role to match – obviously where there is need in the organisation and where there can be a win-win (blah blah blah).

    Most are happy to slot into our existing roles and do little bits extra of more interesting stuff on the side once we learn what their interests and skills are. That formula is working OK for us for now. Also, word gets around and we are fortunate to be a tertiary teaching hospital with university links.

    Personally, I find one of the challenges in recruiting Gen Y and offering interesting/engaging volunteer roles is that it takes more of your resources initially and means you have to have more intense staff support and cooperation, even though you know it will pay off by the end of the project/role. The reality most of the time is that it is easier to squeeze someone to fit the mold than to offer unique opportunity.

    However, if you know of any Gen Y forward thinkers who want to be actively involved in changing the shape of volunteering in the very traditional hospital/health sector, please send them my way. I like to think we are forward thinking and out of the box when it comes to our volunteer programs.

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