Volunteerism and Engagement

Volunteerism, participation, and engagement are ways that youth can contribute to their communities and society.  According to the Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework, contributing is essential for a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood (Lerner et. al., 2002). Young people who experience particularly oppressive environments such as those frequently present in poor, urban environments may experience the added benefits of healing emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and physically as they “comprehend and address the complex, hidden social and economic forces” (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002, p. 92).

Volunteerism, participation, and engagement happen at many levels in many ways.  Following we provide a brief overview and description of some of these ways:

  • Volunteerism or volunteering refers to performing services or activities for others without compensation for oneself.  These may include informal efforts like neighbors helping neighbors, or formal efforts where communities of faith, clubs, or community groups organize groups of individuals to help other groups of individuals, like feeding the homeless, helping people learn to read, serving as mentors, or cleaning up the environment.
  • Participation includes electoral or political activities like volunteering for a political campaign, voting, persuading others to vote, and exercising political voice such as writing to an elected official, sending an email petition, or protesting (Lopez et. al., 2006).  The Civic Health Index (National Conference on Citizenship, 2010) emphasizes the mutually reinforcing nature of these activities – participation and volunteering in one type of activity makes it more likely that an individual will participate in others.
  • Active engagement is a level of participation or volunteering where individuals are actively trying to make a difference through their actions.  They understand what they are trying to change.  They are not just tagging along with a friend or volunteering because their club asked them to do so.
  • Leadership indicates that an individual has understood a need, is organizing a group to meet the need, and is facilitating the participation or volunteering efforts required.
  • Organizing is a type of leadership, but it is grounded within a social justice framework.  It focuses heavily on shared leadership, and on working towards improvements of social problems that individuals in the group are experiencing themselves rather than exclusively focusing on helping others.

By Urban Institute


Sources Cited

Ginwright, S. & Cammarota, J. (2002). New terrain in youth development: The promise of a social justice approach. Social Justice, 29(4), 82-95.

Kirshner, B. (2009). “Power in numbers”: Youth organizing as a context for exploring civic identity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19(3), 414-440.

Lerner, R.M., Brentano, C., Dowling, E.M., Anderson, P.M. (2002). Positive youth development: Thriving as the basis of personhood and civil society. New Directions for Youth Development, 95, 11-33.

Lopez, M. H., Levine, P., Both, D., Kiesa, A., Kirby, E., & Marcelo, K. (2006). The 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Detailed Look at How Youth Participate in Politics and Communities.  Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

National Conference on Citizenship. (2010). 2010 Civic Health Assessment Executive Summary

Zaff, J., Boyd, M., Li, Y., Lerner, J.V., Lerner, R.M. (2010). Active and engaged citizenship: Multi-group and longitudinal factorial analysis of an integrated construct of civic engagement. Journal of Youth Adolescence, published online May 15, 2010.


Additional Resources

Collective Leadership Works: Preparing Youth & Adults for Community Change: A Toolkit

Everyday Democracy: Ideas and Tools for Community Change

Lewis-Charp, H., Yu, H.C., Soukamneuth, S. & Lacoe, J. (2003) Extending the Reach of Youth Development Through Civic Activism: Outcomes of the Youth Leadership for Development Initiative. Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development.

The Nonprofit Sector in Brief: Public Charities, Giving, and Volunteering, 2012 The Urban Institute

Volunteering in America: Information on volunteering and civic engagement; Corporation for National and Community Service web-site

Volunteering in America 2011 Research Highlights; Corporation for National and Community Service web-site

Youth Participatory Politics (focuses on digital engagement)