I consistently get questions at workshops about recruiting young people. It can feel so hard to well-meaning adults to bring children and youth on board in the projects, organizations and communities where we so desperately want and need them to be involved. Today I drafted a tip sheet on recruitment for the Cloud Institute for Sustainability, and I want to share some thoughts I’ve had about recruiting youth for youth programs.
Lesson One: Market Your Brand. I have learned that recruitment shouldn’t just be seen as a once-yearly activity shared in a little flyer and then forgot about. When its done best youth recruitment is seen as an ongoing process, just like advertisers do it: rather than simply launching Coke as a summer drink, its a year-around refreshment. Instead of telling us about Cloverfield the month before it came out, movie watchers were bombarded with ads a year before it came out. By building a constant presence and a regular energy these products enforce their brands in the lives of youth. Youth programs should be branded in that same way by establishing a constant presence in the lives of young people. In the same way that Sprite markets excitement and urbanity, youth organizations should market values, too: positive experiences, powerful ethics and pragmatic outcomes should be at the core of the message. Only then will we not have to market to youth based on benefit; instead the programs designed to serve them will be as ubiquitous as Coke, and something that all young people expect in their lives.
Lesson Two: Keep Youth On Board. First off, let me say that YOUTH ARE NOT YOUR CUSTOMERS. They are not buying anything, and no, they are not consuming your programs. Consumption implies that they have no role in the development, production or re-invention of whatever you’re marketing. Young people must have a greater role than that. The way to keep youth involved is by treating them as equal members in your activity, program or organization. Create opportunities for them to lead and grow through your activities. Engage young people in program research and planning, administrative leadership, facilitating and training other young people, evaluating activities and organizational governance. Make open communication and intergenerational transparency the norm in all of your activities. Young people can feel the investment your organization is making in them when they receive quality training and support throughout your activities, and when they have meaningful opportunities for reflection and evaluation. Only then will they want to stay involved, and for a few different reasons, the primary among them being the feeling of being involved. Experiencing power feels like everything else; sharing it feels like nothing else, because there are so few places in our society where that actually happens. Make it so.
Lesson Three: Engage Youth as Recruiters. Maybe the most important method anyone can employ to recruit young people is to actually engage children and youth as recruiters. My experience has consistently shown me that young people are more consistently more effective at recruiting other young people than adults are. Its seems so logical, because young people know how to relate to their peers and how share the issues with them in ways we don’t. They also know where and when to reach them. Make sure youth recruiters have all the information about your program you can give them, including information about sustainability, your program or organization, and the expectations and outcomes of activity. Every recruiter should be able to tell young people why they should get involved, who else is going to participate, whether there is going to be food, and how many people will be coming. Practice recruiting before doing it. That includes going over the approach, the message and the wrap-up.
There are a lot of other important considerations, too, and this is just a start. Let me know what you think are some other things to think about!