Why forcing kids to volunteer is a great idea

Even when it’s mandatory, volunteering builds community and promotes a healthier society
From the editors
Volunteers at the Great Vancouver Food Bank sort in coming donations at the warehouse in Vancouver October 25, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Another school year begins.

And the majority of Canadian high school students will find themselves doing a lot more than lessons and tests to earn their diplomas this year—they’ll also be working in food banks, coaching kids’ soccer and delivering neighbourhood newsletters.

Volunteer work has become a key requirement of the secondary school education process from coast to coast. It’s a trend worth a closer look, a few tweaks and some celebration.

In 1999, Ontario broke new ground in Canada with a requirement that every high school student complete 40 hours of community service outside the classroom before graduating. The move was sold as a way to improve civic engagement and enhance students’ personal development, and it instantly created a huge source of free labour for a variety of charitable and community organizations.

Other provinces and territories have followed suit, although the programs vary widely. British Columbia’s “graduation transitions” program predates the Ontario system, but students are allowed to accumulate their 30 hours in either paid employment or unpaid community service. Newfoundland, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have all created exclusively volunteer requirements. New Brunswick premier David Alward promised an Ontario-style volunteer program during his last election. Other provinces have left the decision up to local school boards.

Prince Edward Island provides a novel alternative by offering high school students $5 per hour for up to 100 hours of volunteer work as a bursary that can be applied against university or college tuition.

While some U.S. student groups have decried high school volunteer obligations as “slavery,” the idea has created very little controversy in Canada. Asking students to help their community has obvious appeal for both voters and parents. And social science research shows a clear link between volunteerism and a variety of positive outcomes: young volunteers have a greater tendency to vote, do better in school and display less anti-social or negative behaviour, such as teen pregnancy or getting in trouble with the law.

Curiously enough, however, the volunteer industry isn’t entirely sold on the concept.

“The mandated nature means this is not really volunteering,” says Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. She lumps high school hours in with community service orders and other court-mandated sentencing requirements. The fear among those in the charity business is that forcing kids to volunteer in high school might turn them off the concept for the rest of their lives.

However, research at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., reveals no negative impacts from forcing students to provide a week of free work for worthy causes. “Making it mandatory doesn’t undermine any of the positive aspects of the program,” says politics professor Steven Brown. “It doesn’t poison the well.”

And regardless of any direct impact on charities or other groups, there’s more to the community service concept than creating an army of future volunteers. We shouldn’t forget the salutary effect of simply requiring teenagers to think for a moment about their interests and how they might be put to use for the betterment of others. For many kids, accumulating volunteer hours marks their first real experience with the world outside home, school and sports, making it a chance to learn some practical skills as well. Finally, the Ontario model accomplishes all this without consuming precious classroom time or resources.

If there’s a valid criticism, Brown observes, it’s that many students lack the parental support or imagination to find interesting or rewarding volunteer positions. One Ontario survey found that half the students from lower-income families either faked or exaggerated their volunteer requirements. And some kids no doubt consider it just another high school hassle, like Shakespeare or physics. Perhaps the volunteer industry itself should put more effort into making choices easier and more intuitive for students if it’s worried about wooing future volunteers.

Public education is often the source of Canada’s most heated policy debates—from teachers’ salaries to religious funding to sex ed. So we ought to take time to celebrate the quiet successes of the education system as well, such as the fact many provinces have found a way to inculcate a greater sense of community among students while promoting skills development and a healthier society. Mandatory volunteering may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s also a great idea.