What is overlooked in volunteer work with young people?

Mölkänen, J., & Honkatukia, P. (2022). Ambiguous, affective, and arduous: Volunteers’ invisible work with young adults. Journal of Youth Development, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2022.1198

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Past research has either focused on a) the benefits of becoming a volunteer, b) volunteers’ motivations or c) how mentorships are a promising method for approaching at-risk youth and bolstering their protective factors.
  • This article focuses on the reflexive and affective work often overlooked in volunteering.
    • More specifically, it explores the challenges, emotions, and reflections that adult volunteers experienced while developing and sustaining relationships with young adults in a Finish civic association.
  • Although friendships formed, the volunteers experienced some hardships, insufficiencies, and uncertainties within their roles.
  • Being a friend requires more dedication and responsibility than is suggested in volunteer work guidelines.
  • Volunteer work consists of many different types of labor. It requires individuals to prepare for and actively maintain their relationships inside and outside meeting times.
  • Volunteers were sometimes skeptical about accurately pinpointing young people’s needs & expectations as well as developing & maintaining trusting relationships with them.
  • Unfortunately, providing volunteer support and resources didn’t resolve every structural issue.
  • Interestingly, structural issues are convoluted.
    • For instance, short-term, fragmented social services can either a) establish long-term, trusting relationships or b) discourage young people from forming a friendship with a volunteer due to the expectation that the relationship won’t last.
  • Volunteer organizations, funders, and volunteers need to acknowledge and value the invisible labor behind volunteer work to make improvements.
  • However, addressing structural issues can still be difficult for organizations due to high staff turnover, fundraising, short project cycles, etc.
  • Potential volunteers also need to be aware of the invisible labor behind their positions ahead of time.
  •  Both volunteers and young people deserve adequate support.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

Mentoring has been regarded as a promising way to reach at-risk youth and to strengthen the protective factors. This article focuses on emotions, reflections, and challenges that adult volunteers face in trying to establish and maintain a friend relationship with young adults in a multicomponent mentor setting in Finland. Based on our participatory observations in volunteering, a focus group discussion with volunteers and facilitators of volunteering, and interviews with young adults we analyze the nature of volunteers’ actions as invisible work as characterized by Devault (1999). We argue that invisible work should be recognized as a significant part of volunteering in a multi-component mentoring setting. The main findings in this particular case are the following: (a) There are limitations in short-term and project-based work in establishing meaningful relationships between young people and the volunteers/staff. (b) The volunteers are not always equipped to address the material and mental health support needs of the young people. (c) The organizational focus aiming to improve the volunteers’ experience does not solve all the problems related to volunteers’ interaction with young adults, such as fragmented and short-term youth services created by neoliberal policies that the young adults struggle with.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Work)

In this article, we have focused on volunteering experiences in the context of a large civic association in Finland. The volunteers in this case have been friends for young adults who have sought help from the youth shelters of the civic association in question. Although the rewarding end of volunteering was constructed as a friendship in the discussions between volunteers and professionals, the volunteers highlighted several uncertainties, hardships, and insufficiencies involved with volunteer work and their specific friend role. The volunteers were sometimes not sure how to create and maintain trustful relationship with a young person and determine the young adult’s needs and expectations. The volunteers’ notions revealed several activities, such as thinking, reflecting, planning, studying, and sensing, that we have grouped under the term invisible work. Within these engagements the volunteers prepared and maintained their friend relations with young adults, and hence showed incredible commitment in volunteering which was not talked about openly much. Paying attention to invisible work helps to note what kind of actions tend to be unrecognized and undervalued in volunteer work in a multicomponent setting and in larger socio-political frameworks. Our study, for example, reveals that being a friend involves, at least from the standpoint of volunteers, a deep responsibility and dedication that volunteers do not practice only once or twice a month as volunteer work guidelines suggest.

By reflecting on our engagement with volunteer work and discussions, we have also considered the question on how to support volunteers in the kind of a context we have studied. As the civic association had already identified, staff members support, for example, discussing and paying attention to a volunteer and young adult matching. However, the support offered to the volunteers does not provide skills and tools to help volunteers deal with and influence structural issues of fragmented and neoliberal social services that young adults clearly struggle with. The structural issues work also in paradoxical ways: Experiences of short-term, fragmented social services can discourage young people from wanting to engage with the volunteer friend relation as they can expect that it is just one more relationship that will not last. On the other hand, in the middle of short-term services young adults found a good and trustful long-term support relation important and rewarding as they were treated not only as problems to be solved. For future research about invisible work in volunteering, we suggest that systemic and situational power dynamics of volunteering should be addressed.

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