It often seems like volunteerism and civic engagement are at all-time lows. Maybe they are -- and especially here. A study by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that only 19.2% of New York residents volunteer over the course of the year, placing the Empire State dead list in the Union.
Think about that: Less than one of every five New Yorkers gives of themselves.
It smacks of hypocrisy – New Yorkers take pride in their state being a leader, but our ranks are chock full of anything but leaders.
To improve those numbers and, more importantly, the human condition and the quality of life of those served by volunteers, we need to change our culture of participation.
To do that, we have to start young.
Goodness knows we try – most Participation in Government classes at high schools require some sort of mandatory volunteerism (which is oxymoronic). It shows in the participation rates. 20.2% of New Yorkers aged 16 to 19 volunteer. Compare that to those who came before them: Only 14.1% of college-aged adults volunteer and 15.7% of those in the 25 to 34 age bracket do.
So, we force kids into volunteerism, some of them dig it and stick with it, but many just fade away and stay away. We need to reverse that trend and find a way to keep these people – our future - engaged in their communities when they’ve got their foot in the door.
To do that, we need to treat them like adults and allow them to understand and participate in the high-level operations of the organizations that they are working with. If we could have them sit on the board of directors, we would afford them the chance to know the operational, financial, marketing and recruiting aspects of their chosen non-profit. By doing so, that board could capitalize on the bright and new ideas and youthful energy of the minor, which could help bring in more new blood to achieve the charity’s stated goals.
But, unfortunately, New York State law doesn’t give most of those minors and boards the chance to do that.
While 7 states outright exclude youth from being directors, New York is one of 3 that has laws providing for some youth leadership (the other 40 states remain mum on the subject, which does not necessarily give a stamp of approval to the matter).
Our laws are a start, but they are far too limiting and do not encourage service to others. In New York, board participation for youth is extended to minors down to the age of 16, but only for those organizations that educate youth or provide them recreation. A quick roll call would show non-profits like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, charter schools or your local little league.
While that could be a fair number of organizations, it impacts only those non-profits that provide direct services to that youth and her peers. It does not allow minors to sit on the boards of groups through which the minors would provide services to others such as the United Way, Meals on Wheels, fire departments, churches, or any number of foundations and charities.
That approach to board participation does not promote volunteerism at all. Instead of having the teen approach his directorial duties with “what can I and this organization do for the community?” he’s encouraged to be a selfish board member who sees his role as “what can this organization do for me and my friends?”
We need to change that way of thinking by changing New York’s laws. We need to allow minors to be a part of the boards of all non-profits in our borders. While we’re at it, we need to drop the age, too, from 16 to 14.
In my decades of volunteering for the Boy Scouts, I’ve encountered many young teens who are wise beyond their years and brighter and more caring than most adults I know. We as a society (and as adults who run non-profits) need to capitalize on that – a simple fix to state law could really change the business model of our institutions and promote a lifetime of service in an era when its’ truly needed.
From the 25 July 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers