Young volunteers are in short supply on the South Fork. In a far-reaching piece of reporting that appeared here last week, Christine Sampson talked to people from organizations as varied as the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society and the Bridgehampton Fire Department. All agreed new helping hands are harder than ever to recruit. This has led to a graying of the volunteer work force, in which a 50-year-old can feel that he or she is the springyist chicken in the coop.
It is tempting to simply tell teenagers and young adults they should discover the many virtues of volunteering. However, to actually refill the ranks, groups may need to adjust their messages and how they get them out. No longer can organizations sit back and expect new members to come to their door; they must reach out to where prospective young volunteers happen to be — and this mostly means online. But even that is not so easily accomplished.
Not to fault our friends at the venerable Ladies Village Improvement Society, but this East Hampton institution, for example, does not have a presence on Instagram, thereby missing out on reaching a broad set of our more visually oriented neighbors and visitors of all ages. Sure it has an active Facebook presence, but that is apparently far from enough to get new blood and strong backs through the door. And what about YouTube, the massively influential video-sharing site? Nope, nothing much there, either, other than something about the L.V.I.S. fair made about eight years ago. The takeaway should be that groups must go to the places where people congregate, and today that often means the many available social-media platforms, from TikTok to Reddit.
There is a paradox of sorts here. A larger number of teen helpers are available than ever before. Thanks to changes in public school policy, students are now looking for ways to meet new community service requirements while their parents might not even know about certain organizations. This ready pool could be the farm team for future leaders. They could as well be perfect candidates to take over a group’s social media outreach; they just have to be given the latitude to do so.
There is a lesson, too, in the approach taken by several organizations not to view younger people as suitable only for mundane tasks. The East Hampton Historical Farm Museum encourages teens to take on projects of personal interest. Guild Hall and several libraries have broken down the walls of management by appointing youth councils and then actually listening to what they have to say. Sometimes, too great a hierarchy can be a big turnoff for someone new to a group and eager — at first — to help out. Bat away that fresh enthusiasm and it should be no surprise that the dropout rate remains high.
The point for volunteer organizations is that grooming the next generation and making future leaders feel welcome and valued takes effort. The groups that understand this will live on and thrive.