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Youth community service: Belonging, reciprocity, and agency 

Youth service focus group members having a discussion.

How do young people today see their role in making the world a better place, and what are the implications for the social sector? A report from the Center for Expanding Leadership & Opportunity (CELO) and The Allstate Foundation explores how Gen Z is expanding the definition of “community service” and seeking to maximize impact—for themselves and the communities they serve. 

In conversations with Candid insights, Greg Weatherford II, The Allstate Foundation’s youth empowerment program officer, and CELO co-founders Kristan Cilente Skendall and John Dugan shared their thoughts on the importance of service for youth—who are navigating, in Cilente Skendall’s words, “a post-pandemic world characterized by growing polarization in communities, economic uncertainty, and fears of social isolation.”  

Defining ‘community service’ broadly

Based on surveys and focus groups, Leveraging the Potential of Youth Service found that young people ages 18 to 25 defined “community service” broadly, beyond volunteering with a nonprofit organization. Activities they considered “service” included “working with others to make the community or campus a better place” (81%), “acting to benefit the common good” (80%), “everyday acts of kindness” (76%), “acting to raise awareness about a campus, community, or global problem” (72%), and “working with others to address social inequality” (68%).  

Under this inclusive definition, 70% of respondents said they participated in service on a monthly basis—more than twice the 23% to 28% in studies with narrower definitions and the 33.8% reported for “informal helping.” The inclusion of awareness raising and “working with others” suggests a need for social connections in the wake of a pandemic, school closings, police violence, campus shootings, and other trauma. 

“At a macro level, service is an opportunity to reweave our cultural fabric of connection and social trust,” said Dugan. “It is a reminder that amidst all of the complexities and challenges youth face, being part of something bigger than themselves is essential to them.” 

Seeking connections, reciprocity, and agency 

According to Weatherford, who started a nonprofit at age 12, “youth-led, youth-driven service experiences cultivate a greater sense of agency, purpose, and interconnectedness.” 

As with previous research, the survey found that youth who volunteered reported gains in leadership skills (77%), career readiness (70%), and a sense of belonging (67%). Respondents also said service increased their belief that they can make a positive difference in their community (79%), self-awareness (78%), knowledge about social, political, and civic issues (72%), and ability to collaborate with others (80%).  

Today’s youth, however, are equally focused on ensuring long-term benefits for the recipient communities and building sustainable, meaningfully reciprocal relationships. To illustrate, Cilente Skendall shared that one activity not considered “service” by most respondents was “alternative breaks”—short trips designed to provide students with “service immersion experiences.” Gen Z doesn’t see such trips as service because “it’s hard to create reciprocity when you go into another environment and you…drop in for a week and then drop out,” said Dugan. 

Focus group participants from private, public, community, and historically Black colleges and universities told researchers that many of them had been recipients as well as providers of help since 2020. Dugan and Cilente Skendall noted that, while community impact is difficult to measure, the sector needs to follow these young people’s lead in valuing reciprocity as it works to center communities. 

The students also emphasized that service increased their sense of agency. In an unpredictable environment, youth need to gain a sense of control, to know that they are making a difference in the world. This, in turn, helps them learn “how to navigate pathways” through complicated systems, explained Dugan.  

“Service provides pathways to social connection [and] purpose and reflects their vision of the world as it could be, not as they are experiencing it today,” said Cilente Skendall. At the same time, youth with various lived experiences told her, “We have so many ideas and we don’t often feel heard” because of “adultism”—which diminishes their agency. This is why service programs should be youth-led and youth-driven, she added. 

Rethinking youth service to maximize benefits 

If youth see service as a way to address polarization, uncertainty, and isolation and to create connections, purpose, and their vision of the world, it’s as important as ever that programs meet those needs. The report offers five “design considerations” to ensure a youth-led and youth-driven focus, access, quality, reciprocity, and a change strategy. They’re meant to guide schools and nonprofits in launching initiatives or increasing the impact of existing ones through “a shift in thinking about what service is, its potential benefits, and how we can…put youth at the center of this work,” according to Dugan. 

The imperative to center youth also applies to funders. The Allstate Foundation not only provides resources directly to youth-led service initiatives but also involves youth in funding decisions. But grantmakers need not create a new program to fund youth service programs, noted Weatherford. “Regardless of the funding priority—equity, economic mobility, safer communities—service is a powerful means to achieve those ends. Funding lines don’t necessarily have to change to support service,” he said. 

Listening to and learning from youth 

Youth today see community service through a broader, more inclusive lens—as a way to navigate a difficult environment toward a better future. Centering youth leadership in service programs could increase the impact for both the participants and the communities they serve. 

“When we adopt youth’s broader understanding of service in the context of empirical evidence that service is a high-impact learning strategy with wide-ranging benefits, it helps position service as a vehicle for driving impact across any philanthropic focus, strategy, or priority,” argued Cilente Skendall. 

“[A]s is often the case, youth are at the forefront,” said Weatherford. “We just have to take the time to listen and apply their experiences.”  

Photo credit: Megan Ory, Chicago Corporate Photography & Video, Inc.


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