Is your program enrolling youth who can best benefit from your services?

Civic engagement programs are more successful when they take a targeted approach, clearly defining the population they plan to serve in terms of age range, neighborhood, youth experiences, and youth interests.  It is also important to consider the cultural backgrounds of youth and how that may influence the kinds of civic engagement activities that would interest them.

Once you decide on a target population, it is important to assure that the youth contacting, being referred to, and eventually enrolling in your program represent that population.  Following are three key management steps to help you track, assess, and refine your ability to attract and enroll your targeted population.

Define and Track Enrollment Criteria
The first step is to define the criteria you will use to decide whether a youth is likely to benefit substantially from your program’s services. Program application and assessment tools must track these criteria. Enrollment criteria to consider include:

  • Demographic characteristics like geographic location, age, and so on. Age, for example, is important because services designed for one age group may not be suitable for youth who are younger or older. Demographic characteristics like race and gender also need to be tracked for reasons other than targeting.  Such data may be used to determine whether the program is successfully recruiting diverse participants, for example. Understanding the perspectives of others is an important skill to learn, and a diverse participant environment can foster that for most youth (this does not apply to all groups – see below). 
  • Risk factors (if your program is designed to serve youth at risk of particular negative outcomes). The lives of high-risk youth and low-risk youth are often so different, especially in terms of safety, hope, optimism, and social trust, that programs cannot serve both groups well.  These differences in life experiences often require completely different approaches to program design. While “low-risk” youth benefit from participant diversity, high-risk youth are often better served in groups with similar backgrounds and experiences, when they have the opportunity to come together to address community issues with which they can personally identify.   
  • Skills/knowledge/interest level (if your program will only benefit youth who already have a particular skill/knowledge/interest level).  If you are trying to attract youth at a particular skill or knowledge level, the assessment instruments in the outcomes/indicators portion of PerformWell could be used to help you do that.  Rather than taking the baseline measure after enrolment in the program, you could use the tool(s) as part of an application or pre-screening process.

Review and Modify Recruitment Efforts

If your program is not reaching/enrolling the youth you are seeking to engage, you should review and modify your recruitment strategies and efforts. Youth interests and awareness are continually changing so it helps to use several strategies periodically (rather than once) during the year. Following are some strategies that have been shown to work:

  • Concentrate your efforts on where young people spend a lot of time
  • Recruit directly through staff with whom youth can relate and who they can trust (this is particularly important for high risk youth)
  • Present in school classes
  • Seek referrals from probation officers, parents, foster parents, social service providers, school counselors, teachers, and current participants
  • Make the benefits of participating clear to the youth

Determine if There Are Barriers to Enrollment

If you have many appropriate youth contacting your program but not enrolling in the program, you should reflect on what barriers to enrollment the youth might be experiencing.  You might want to invite youth or community members to some meetings or ask if you can come to school classes or afterschool programs to find out why youth are not signing up.  There may be logistical issues, such as:

  • Location/transportation – can the youth easily get to the places activities are held?
  • Scheduling – do your program activities adequately take into account the other responsibilities that youth have or does the timing of your programming conflict with other programs or events?
  • Needs – do other programs meet basic needs, such as afterschool snacks, that your program does not?
  • Income – some youth need to earn income for their families, and participating in a program such as yours may be considered a luxury.  Is there some kind of compensation you can provide?

In addition to these logistical issues, it may be that the way your program interacts with youth at the initial point of contact makes the youth feel like your program won’t be the best place for them.  For example, it could be that youth feel like someone should have answered the phone sooner, emailed or texted them sooner, or it might be that they couldn’t relate to the style of speaking or background/experiences of the person they were talking to.  Observing staff behavior in these initial relationships could help in making appropriate adjustments.


By Urban Institute 


Sources Cited

Balsano, A. (2005). Youth civic engagement in the United States: Understanding and addressing the impact of social impediments on positive youth and community development. Applied Developmental Science, (9)(4), 188-201.

Hathi, S. & Bhaerman, B. (n.d.). Effective Practices for Engaging At-Risk Youth in Service. Youth Service America (YSA)

Lewis-Charp, H., Cao Yu, H., 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 (ICCYD).

Pittman, K., Martin, S., Williams, A. (July 2007). Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change. The Forum for Youth Investment (FYI) & Oasis/Community IMPACT

Schwartz, S. & Suyemoto, K. (2012). Creating change from the inside: Youth development within a youth community organizing program. Journal of Community Psychology, 00:00, 1-18.

Serving High-Risk Youth: Lessons from Research and Programming. (2002). Public/Private Ventures

Toppe, C., Golombek, S., Kirsch, A.D., Michel, J. & Weber, M.A. (2002). Engaging Youth in Lifelong Service: Findings and Recommendations for Encouraging a Tradition of Voluntary Action Among America’s Youth. Independent Sector & Youth Service America.

Additional Resources

Recruitment, Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network