Lessons in engaging Millennials from the German ‘welcome culture’

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by Sarah Rosenthal, CCVO Visiting Fellow


Over the last few weeks working with CCVO, I have often been asked what Canada can learn from the German nonprofit sector. Simultaneously, I have learned that many nonprofits in Calgary find it challenging to attract millennials as volunteers. This is why I decided to share some of my learnings from the German ‘welcome culture’ in this blogpost.

When nearly one million refugees came to Germany in 2015, not only was German society changed, but also volunteering. Many volunteers got engaged for the first time, and many millennials were among them. Besides this surge of volunteers, volunteering itself became much more self-organized and often skill-based – both strong motivators for millennials to get involved.

We saw an increase in numbers of volunteers. In 2015 and 2016, 55% of the people in Germany over the age of 16 were in some way involved in helping refugees – 9% of these were first time volunteers. About half of them donated money or in-kind donations, but there was an even more impressive change in the number of people who donated their time. Many volunteers provided support for example by organizing and handing out clothes or food, or by helping refugees with their paperwork.

Besides the increase in numbers, the way in which people helped changed. As more and more refugees arrived at train stations, volunteers often organized themselves to support the refugees. Facebook became a main tool to for volunteers to organize this support.

Facebook groups became more than just a show of virtual support, volunteers created real local communities, often exceeding more than 10,000 members. In these groups, volunteer leaders asked the online communities for was needed most and people responded, whether it was food, clothes or toiletries. Volunteering shifts were organized via Doodle and allowed helpful people with various backgrounds to tackle this challenge together. Not only in-kind donations but individual skills were needed and everyone tried to help as much as possible.

My organization Start with a Friend works to create personal connections between refugees and locals to foster sustainable networks and friendships. During the influx of refugees in Germany, more than 900 people applied for volunteering in just one month, many of them between the age of 27-34. Besides general volunteering, many offered their professional skills. This support helped us to continue to develop our organization. For example, professionals volunteered to build a database, set up our webpage, and supported us with their graphic design-skills.

So what are learnings concerning millennial volunteers? Creating a sense of purpose is said to be the key to engaging millennials in volunteering and giving. In 2015, it was visible everywhere that help was needed. The local proximity to the crisis led to a sense of a responsibility and enabled people to get involved easily. Whether it was just for a few hours or long-term, everyone could make a real impact.

In addition, the use of online tools and social media in organizing volunteering made a big difference. Potential volunteers could search databases or join local groups to choose the form of volunteering that fit them best. If a specific need emerged, whether it was to provide diapers or a professional skill, it was easy to share this information online and many needs were solved within a few hours. Social media made volunteering easily accessible for many millennials who spend a lot of time on social networks.

Currently, Start with a Friend has more than 35,000 followers on Facebook. For the past 3 years we have focused on telling stories on Facebook about the impact people in our organization make and it is still an important tool to recruit new volunteers. Skill-based volunteering is also said to be crucial to engage millennials in volunteer activities. Not only Start with a Friend, but many initiatives in Germany have had similar experiences: once millennials get involved they are great disseminators and bring their friends, networks, and skills to support the purpose they deeply care about.

If you have further questions on my work in Germany or what I am doing in Calgary, you can read my previous blogpost or write to srosenthal@calgarycvo.org.