Understanding the volunteer motivations, barriers and experiences of urban and rural youth: a mixed-methods analysis

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There is a growing need to promote volunteerism among youth, given the declining rates across Western countries, and the societal and individual benefits gained through community engagement. Research has focused on individual predictors of volunteerism, but little is known about the role of context, such as urban–rural differences when examining comparable cohorts. Using data from a Canadian survey and semi-structured interviews, we documented differences in volunteer motivations and barriers between urban and rural youth. Survey results showed that rural youth volunteered more hours if they had friends who volunteered, whereas urban youth invested more hours if they were motivated to explore their strengths. Qualitative findings highlighted the importance of networks as levers to formal and informal volunteering, especially for rural youth, and the unique social and structural barriers related to volunteerism depending on place of residence. Contextual factors should be considered when designing strategies to recruit and retain young volunteers.

Abstract

There is a growing need to promote volunteerism among youth, given the declining rates across Western countries, and the societal and individual benefits gained through community engagement. Research has focused on individual predictors of volunteerism, but little is known about the role of context, such as urban–rural differences when examining comparable cohorts. Using data from a Canadian survey and semi-structured interviews, we documented differences in volunteer motivations and barriers between urban and rural youth. Survey results showed that rural youth volunteered more hours if they had friends who volunteered, whereas urban youth invested more hours if they were motivated to explore their strengths. Qualitative findings highlighted the importance of networks as levers to formal and informal volunteering, especially for rural youth, and the unique social and structural barriers related to volunteerism depending on place of residence. Contextual factors should be considered when designing strategies to recruit and retain young volunteers.

Volunteerism is a significant expression of community engagement for youth and can build local capacities and contribute to wellbeing. Two main types of volunteering are: (a) formal, which is providing unpaid help on behalf of an organisation (see, for example, Smith, 1994; Wilson and Musick, 1997); and (b) informal, which is directly helping people outside one’s household, such as picking up their groceries (Carson, 1999; Finkelstein and Brannick, 2007). Canadian surveys have reported high informal (87%) and moderate formal (58%) volunteer rates among youth, aged 15–24 (Vézina and Crompton, 2012). While voluminous research exists on individual predictors of youth volunteerism, there is a dearth of research on how volunteerism may differ based on one’s ecological niche, such as place of residence. Bronfenbrenner (1979) theorised that context matters as people interact within various ecological systems, including the microsystem (for example, schools and neighbourhoods) and the macrosystem (which embodies normative traditions and cultures). This article examines the motivations for and barriers to volunteering among urban and rural youth from a socioecological perspective. This study is the first to directly compare urban and rural youths’ volunteer experiences through a large Canadian survey, and to complement findings with interviews in an urban and rural region.

Volunteerism has been linked to positive youth development (PYD), a framework that focuses on nourishing the positive potential in youth (see, for example, Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Lerner et al, 2005). Extensive literature shows there are numerous benefits from volunteering for youth, some of which include achieving skills, gaining experience in professional activities and making new friends (Motoi, 2020); and also enhancing prosocial attitudes, developing positive self-identities, enhancing caring behaviour, promoting leadership skills and buffering against potential negative outcomes, such as delinquency (see, for example, Brennan, 2008; Gardner et al, 2008; see a review by Miller et al, 2011; Siu et al, 2012). In one study, a sample of youth in Pakistan reported that they learnt empathy and compassion through volunteering, and that they also acquired teamwork, communication and organisation skills (Taimur and Mursaleen, 2020). The ‘Five Cs’ model posits that five domains are essential for PYD – connection, character, caring, compassion and confidence – and that these can be attained through volunteering (Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Lerner et al, 2005). Despite the vast literature on the benefits of youth volunteering, none of these studies considered differences between urban and rural youth.

According to the PYD framework, and consistent with the socioecological model, development is based on transactions between interconnected spheres such as biological, psychological, family and community characteristics (see, for example, Catalano et al, 2004). The degree to which youth value helping others in society (that is, ‘culture of benevolence’; Wilson and Musick, 1997) may reflect the socioecological context in which they are embedded. One cross-national study using data from the European Social Survey revealed that differences in the formal volunteerism of adults may be attributed to contextual features of the country, such as the historical background (Plagnol and Huppert, 2010). Context plays a fundamental role in sculpting positive pathways to youth development, therefore this article explores whether volunteer experiences, particularly perceived barriers and motivations, differ for urban versus rural youth.

Rural sociology and volunteerism

‘Social capital’ is a multifaceted concept rapidly gaining recognition in rural and urban sociology. It refers to the network of collective resources of a community, is accrued through norms, social connections and group memberships and involves integration with family, friends and community members (see, for example, Putnam, 2000; Edwards, 2004; van Oorschot et al, 2006). Extant literature shows a strong link between social capital and volunteerism, namely that people who express a higher sense of cohesion and perceive greater connections within their community are more inclined to participate in their community and volunteer (see, for example, Okun and Michel, 2006; Omoto and Snyder, 2010; Clerkin et al, 2013; Dury et al, 2014). Lee and Brudney (2012) found that social networks are important catalysts to both formal and informal volunteering. Social networks foster volunteering by providing contacts, building trust and promoting collective action (Wilson and Musick, 1997).

Research suggests that there are strong indicators of social capital in rural places. In one study, rural residents in Canada reported stronger feelings of community belongingness than residents in larger census metropolitan areas (Carpiano and Hystad, 2011), and were more likely to know almost all of their neighbours (Turcotte, 2005). Qualitative research found that rural youth in the United States (US) perceived their communities as one where they feel safe and people are friendly and they have strong community attachment (Theodori and Theodori, 2014). In the United Kingdom (UK), rural residents compared with urban residents were more likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their neighbourhood and feel that people in their neighbourhood can be trusted and that people are willing to help their neighbours (Siegler, 2016). Social networks and cohesion have been found to be strong predictors of volunteerism (see, for example, Wilson and Musick, 1997), and these may be stronger drivers of community involvement for rural residents than for urban residents.

Classical urban sociologists argue that characteristics of urbanisation (for example, population density and heterogeneity) increase segregation, social isolation and competition among members, which impairs social participation among city dwellers (Wirth, 1938). Some research suggests that higher ethnic diversity in urban regions may be related to lower indicators of social capital (for example, in terms of trust and cooperative behaviour), because similar members may band together and create pockets of socially isolated communities (Johnston and Soroka, 2001; Uslaner, 2002). One Canadian study found that larger community size was associated with lower interpersonal trust and a lower likelihood of joining organisations (Aizlewood and Pendakur, 2005). However, another report revealed that urban Canadians were less active in formal volunteering but were equally as likely as rural Canadians to informally volunteer (Turcotte, 2005). As the landscapes across Canada diversify and evolve, urban–rural divergences may be nuanced and this warrants further investigation.

Volunteer motives and barriers

The subject of youth volunteer motivations is widely discussed as part of school programmes and social policies, yet few studies consider regional differences and the impact on volunteer commitment. While the volunteer literature tends to support the historical sociological perspectives of urbanites as being socially distant and rural residents as more cohesive, it is difficult to draw conclusions in the absence of direct urban–rural comparisons. The limited research on rural youths’ volunteering motives tends to emphasise the importance of volunteering for social reasons. One study showed that rural volunteers in Tasmanian communities were driven by social connections and wanting to contribute to their community (Kilpatrick et al, 2010), but it did not compare these volunteers to urban ones. In another study, also without a comparison group, rural adolescents were more likely to volunteer if they perceived that their parents and peers were strong advocates for community engagement (Huebner and Mancini, 2003). Generally, volunteering in order to network may be a strong motive for youth volunteering.

In contrast, urban regions are more populated, competitive and socially heterogenous, and urban youth may volunteer for career-oriented reasons over socially oriented reasons. Indeed, one Canadian study found that urbanity was related to volunteering motivated by improving employability (Chum et al, 2015). Findings from a national study in England revealed that university students volunteered for a variety of reasons (for example, for career or social reasons) and that these motives differed depending on characteristics such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity and university rank (Holdsworth, 2010). However, urban–rural differences were not explored.

There is also a paucity of empirical research on regional differences between rural and urban youth and barriers to volunteering. Across US communities, inadequate transportation was a perceived barrier to volunteering, especially among rural residents with lower education compared with their urban counterparts (Torgerson and Edwards, 2012). Research finds that rural residents usually report lower incomes and lower educational attainment than urban residents (see, for example, Singh, 2002). This is linked to volunteer behaviour because higher indicators of human capital, such as income and education, are associated with a greater likelihood of volunteering (Wilson, 2000; Lee and Brudney, 2009). Taken together, rural youth with fewer resources and qualified skills may encounter more barriers to volunteering.

Rural residents, however, may have stronger social paths to volunteering. Reports indicated that rural Canadians most commonly learnt about volunteering through personal connections and word of mouth (Bruce et al, 1999), and were more likely to volunteer if they or a family member were already part of the organisation (Barr et al, 2004). This close-knit aspect of rural communities may entice people to volunteer but also make them more susceptible to volunteer burnout. In rural areas, people may have to undertake several roles to sustain their community (Barker, 1968; Schoggen, 1989). For example, rural volunteers in Scotland reported broad, generalist roles and provided essential services or helped out wherever was required, whereas urban volunteers took on more specific roles (Woolvin and Rutherford, 2013). Rural non-profit organisations in Canada have cited difficulties with recruitment and volunteer burnout as rural volunteers are often the pillars of community activities (Bruce et al, 1999).

The importance of volunteerism in rural communities

The volunteer sector is essential to rural Canada because it provides many services: fire departments, search-and-rescue teams, literacy services, tourism, hospice services at home, cultural events and extracurricular and other social activities for youth (see, for example, Nurse, 2007; Fairbairn and Gustafson, 2008). Reports showed that rural charities in Ontario focused on ‘other community benefits’ (for example, animal protection and volunteer fire departments) more than their urban counterparts did (Barr et al, 2004), and that 84% of non-profit organisations in certain rural regions of Ontario felt they would cease to exist without the assistance of volunteers (Social Research and Planning Council of Perth Huron, 2013). Gagnon et al (2021) reported positive outcomes when non-profits worked in partnership with small and medium-sized enterprises in a semi-rural area of Quebec. These outcomes included: strengthening interpersonal relationships, enhancing awareness of community needs and contributing to community development. Similarly, rural volunteerism in Ireland has been perceived as having a significant infrastructural impact because volunteers increase access to services, help develop local enterprise and jobs, and relieve pressure on public services (Farrell, 2018). Rural communities in Western Australia are reliant on volunteers to provide essential services (for example, aged care services and ambulatory services) and this has led to widespread volunteer burnout (Holmes et al, 2019). Given the importance of volunteerism to rural communities, it is essential to better understand the reasons for volunteering and the challenges encountered.

Traditional predictors of youth volunteerism

Reports have documented that youth aged 15–19 have higher volunteer rates than youth aged 20–24 (Lasby and Bakker, 2010), that females are more engaged in volunteerism than males (for example, Wilson and Musick, 1997) and that a lack of fluency in the host language (Canada is predominantly English-speaking) deters immigrants’ propensity to formally volunteer (Tucker and Santiago, 2013). Furthermore, people with more social capital (for example, social ties/connections) and human capital (for example, higher income and education and employment) and who are in good health are more likely to volunteer (see, for example, Wilson and Musick, 1997; Forbes and Zampelli, 2014), as are youth who attend religious services regularly, who have parents who volunteer and/or who are part of associations such as political parties or sports (see, for example, Sundeen and Raskoff, 2000; Wilson, 2000; Hodgkinson, 2003). Youth who have resided longer in their community may have more social networks because long-term residence allows for strong social ties and interactions to form (Rotolo et al, 2010), thus they may be more inclined to volunteer. Therefore, we took all of these variables into consideration in our analyses. This article addresses the gap about whether the type of location – rural versus urban settings – relates to diverse forms, motives or barriers for volunteering, notably in youth.

Hypotheses tested through survey data

Based on what has been implied in available research, we hypothesise that rural youth who report volunteering because of social factors (for example, because friends volunteer or to increase social networks) will contribute more hours, whereas urban youth motivated by career-oriented reasons will invest more hours. Given the social context of urban areas, urban youth will cite more social barriers to volunteering (for example, nobody asked them to volunteer), whereas rural youth will more likely cite the financial costs of volunteering, which may be linked to place-based structural barriers (for example, a lack of transportation options).

Methodology and results

A mixed-methods approach was undertaken combining national survey data results with qualitative interviews. A sequential transformative perspective was employed, whereby the quantitative methods preceded the qualitative methods (Creswell et al, 2003). Four purposes of using mixed methods were sought (Greene, 2007):

  • development – whereby quantitative results were used to help build an interview protocol;

  • complementarity – to enrich and broaden the interpretations as the survey was limited to closed-ended questions;

  • expansion – to extend the scope of inquiry and explore different phenomena that were not captured in the survey;

  • triangulation – to compare the quantitative and qualitative findings and seek convergence and corroboration in interpretation.

National survey

Data and participants. The Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP) is a national survey that gathers data on prosocial participation, volunteering and donating among Canadians aged 15 and older. As per frequent practice when specific subgroups are targeted, to ensure adequate sample size and fully protect anonymity in small cells (see, for example, Chu et al, nd; Lewis, 2017), two cycle years were combined from the 2007 and 2010 CSGVP (n = 2,892), which included participants aged 15–24 as the standard definition of youth (United Nations, nd).1 Before pooling, comparison between the 2007 and 2010 samples did not reveal significant differences. Overall, results on volunteering in Canada have been stable across the years. The 2007 sample size for the ten provinces was 20,510 (Statistics Canada, 2007), while in 2010 it was 14,059 (Statistics Canada, 2010).2 The CSGVP employs a stratified design done at the province/census metropolitan area level as well as random digit dialling – a methodology that generates telephone numbers randomly (Statistics Canada, 2007; 2010). The institutionalised population, full-time military members and people without a land phone line were excluded. Weighting estimates were provided by Statistics Canada, adjusting for certain population characteristics, such as unresolved telephone numbers, number of telephone lines in the household and non-response (household and person level), and ensuring population estimates were consistent with census projections for people aged 15 and older (for youth this equates to 3,770,649).

Place of residence was based on postcode address. Urban regions included Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) and Census Agglomeration areas (CAs). A CMA has a total population of at least 100,000, of which 50,000 or more must live in the core – a population centre. A CA must have a core population of at least 10,000. Rurality was defined as regions outside of CMAs or CAs; this included strong, moderate and weak metropolitan-influenced zones (MIZs), as well as areas that were not MIZs. Metropolitan-influenced zones were based on the proportion of residents in the labour force that commute to work in the urban core(s) of CMAs or CAs, and were categorised as follows: strong (at least 30%), moderate (at least 5% but less than 30%) and weak (more than 0% but less than 5%) (Statistics Canada, 2011).

Variables

Formal volunteering. Respondents were asked: “Now, I’d like to ask you some questions about any activities that you did without pay on behalf of a group or an organisation in the past 12 months”, and then the interviewer read a list of activities to the respondent (for example, mentoring and canvassing). If they answered “yes” to volunteering in at least one activity, they were considered a volunteer. We used non-volunteer status as the outcome variable, thus barriers with higher odds ratios reflected a greater likelihood of being a non-volunteer. To measure volunteer intensity, volunteering respondents were asked: “In the past 12 months, how many hours did you spend on unpaid activities for this organisation?”, for three organisations in which they spent the most hours (if they volunteered for more than three organisations, they could also indicate the hours contributed there).

Motives. Respondents who indicated they had volunteered within the past year were asked: “Thinking about the reasons why you volunteered in the past 12 months on behalf of this organisation, please tell me whether the following reasons were important to you.” Six reasons were considered: the organisation’s cause; to network/meet others; friends volunteer; to improve job opportunities; to explore strengths; and to use skills and experiences (1 = yes; 0 = no).

Barriers. Participants were presented with the following statement: ‘There are many factors that may influence one’s decision or ability to (volunteer more/volunteer) on behalf of a group or an organisation. Please tell me whether any of the following statements are reasons why you did not (volunteer more/volunteer) in the past 12 months.’ Volunteers were asked to report reasons for not volunteering more, whereas non-volunteers were asked their reasons for not volunteering at all. Eight barriers to volunteering were included: nobody asked; didn’t know how; cannot commit long-term; no time; no interest; financial costs; health problems; and prefer to give money (1 = yes; 0 = no).

Covariates. Across all analyses, to single out the role of region, we controlled for several variables in block 1 of all of our hierarchical regression analyses, including: survey year, age, gender, household income, employment status, language spoken at home, time resided in the community, parental volunteerism, student status, religious attendance, self-rated general health and whether youth saw others they admired helping people, belonged to youth groups, were part of sports teams or were active in student government (see Table 1).

Table 1:

Sociodemographic and resource characteristics, by place of residence (weighted sample)

VariableUrbanRural
%%
Male (femalea)50.254.5***
AgeM = 19.3 (SD = 2.9)M = 18.8 (SD = 2.9)***
English (other languagea)71.170.6
Household income
 Less than $20,0009.310.5*
 $20,000 to < $40,00014.815.2
 $40,000 to < $60,00016.716.9
 $60,000 to < $100,00025.325.7
 $100,000 or morea34.031.6*
Fair/poor health6.56.3
Good health21.025.0***
Very good health36.834.9*
Excellent healtha35.733.8*
Full-time work24.530.8***
Part-time work31.530.4
Not workinga44.038.7***
High school student31.738.7***
Post-secondary student40.522.0***
Non-studenta27.739.4***
Years in community
 10 years or more62.776.2***
 3 to less than 10 years21.814.8***
 Less than 3 yearsa15.59.0***
Part of sports teams (noa)65.568.1***
Belong to youth groups (noa)43.448.3***
Student government (noa)18.924.3***
Admired person helps (noa)58.157.9
Parents volunteer
 Yes46.052.1***
 Noa51.044.5***
 Missing2.93.3
Religious attendance
 Monthly/weekly23.820.9***
 1–4 times a year21.329.8***
 Not at all20.822.6*
 Not religiousa34.026.7***
Survey year 2010 (2007a)48.950.3
Volunteer57.465.7***

Notes: % = proportion of the weighted youth sample; M = mean; SD = standard deviation. a reference category for subsequent analyses. For dichotomous variables, proportions are based on the category that was coded 1. The unweighted sample sizes were 2,225 for urban youth and 637 for rural youth; weighting from Statistics Canada. *p < .05. ***p < .001.

As can be observed in Table 1, a greater percentage of rural youth than urban youth were non-students, were involved in social activities, worked full time and resided in their community for ten years or more. A greater percentage of urban youth were post-secondary students and had higher household incomes.

Statistical analyses

Analyses were conducted in Stata, version 14.0, and were bootstrapped and weighted to reflect the youth Canadian population. Separate hierarchical linear regressions were conducted for the rural and urban samples to examine the strongest predictors of formal volunteer hours. The first block contained covariates and the second block contained motives for volunteering.

Logistic regression was used to determine which barriers predicted non-volunteer status (that is, which barriers were most strongly associated with not volunteering). Then, two hierarchical linear regressions were conducted; one each for the urban and rural volunteers, to determine the association between reasons for not volunteering more and formal volunteer hours contributed. Multilevel modelling could not be conducted as data for the survey were collected using a complex survey design, which would have required weights for each level of the model: conditional lower-level weights (for example, youth within districts) and unconditional high-level weights (for example, regions) at the highest level of the hierarchy (West et al, 2018). The final weights available in the data were based on a series of complex weighting steps, and it was not possible to disaggregate the weights by level in order to avoid biased estimates.

Survey results

Motives for volunteering

Table 2 shows the results of the multivariate regressions. Formal volunteer hours were transformed using log odds. As hypothesised, one key urban–rural difference was that volunteering because friends volunteered positively related to rural youths’ volunteer hours (B = 0.22, p < .001) but negatively for urban youths’ volunteer hours (B = -0.08, p < .001). Reporting a desire to explore one’s strengths had a positive relationship with urban youths’ volunteer hours (B = 0.30, p < .001), but none with rural youths’ volunteering. Contrary to our differential hypothesis, volunteering to use one’s skills and to improve job opportunities related to greater volunteer hours for both urban and rural youth. Interestingly, although the survey did not ask whether family volunteering was a motive for youth volunteering, results showed that having parents who volunteered was associated with a higher likelihood of formal volunteering but this was stronger in rural settings (OR = 1.60) than in urban settings (OR = 1.25). One unexpected finding was that not knowing how to volunteer was a stronger predictor of non-volunteer status for rural youth than for urban youth. Aspects of these findings were probed in the interviews by asking youth how they learn about volunteering opportunities and from whom.

Table 2:

Regression of barriers and motivations on volunteer proclivity and hours contributed, by place of residence (weighted sample)

Volunteer yes/noVolunteer hours
UrbanRuralUrbanRural
OR(SE)95% CIOR(SE)95% CICoeff. (SE)95% CICoeff. (SE)95% CI
Motivations
 Network--0.20(.02)***[0.15, 0.25]0.28(.04)***[0.19, 0.36]
 Job opportunities--0.22(.03)***[0.17, 0.27]0.26(.04)***[0.18, 0.34]
 Explore strengths--0.30(.02)***[0.25, 0.34]–0.00(.05)[–0.10, 0.10]
 Use skills/experiences--0.58(.03)***[0.51, 0.64]0.78(.05)***[0.68, 0.87]
 Friends volunteer---0.08(.02)***[-0.12, -0.04]0.22(.04)***[0.13, 0.30]
 Affected by cause--0.18(.02)***[0.13, 0.22]0.28(.04)***[0.19, 0.36]
Constant--0.83(.14)***[0.56, 1.10]1.74(.25)***[1.24, 2.23]
Adjusted R2--0.180.28
Wald χ2 (block 1)2,211.58***2,719.23***
Wald χ2 (block 2)1,263.64***662.90***
Barriers
 Prefer to give1.85(.06)***[1.73, 1.98]3.60(.26)***[3.12, 4.15]-0.73(.03)***[-0.79, -0.68]-0.59(.06)***[-0.70, -0.48]
 Nobody asked2.45(.08)***[2.28, 2.62]2.18(.15)***[1.89, 2.50]-0.21(.02)***[-0.25, -0.16]-0.38(.04)***[-0.46, -0.30]
 Didn’t know how1.26(.04)***[1.17, 1.35]2.00(.14)***[1.75, 2.29]-0.17(.02)***[-0.22, -0.13]-0.26(.04)***[-0.35, -0.18]
 Financial costs1.00(.04)[0.92, 1.09]2.74(.29)***[2.23, 3.36]0.56(.04)***[0.49, 0.64]0.32(.08)***[0.16, 0.48]
 No time0.96(.04)[0.89, 1.04]0.74(.06)***[0.64, 0.87]0.01(.03)[-0.04, 0.06]0.29(.04)***[0.20, 0.37]
 No interest1.32(.04)***[1.24, 1.41]1.12(.08)[0.97, 1.28]-0.21(.03)***[-0.26, -0.16]-0.31(.05)***[-0.40, -0.21]
 Can’t commit long term0.90(.03)***[0.84, 0.96]0.81(.06)*[0.69, 0.93]-0.11(.02)***[-0.16, -0.07]-0.30(.03)***[-0.35, -0.22]
 Health problems0.68(.04)***[0.60, 0.76]0.51(.05)***[0.42, 0.63]0.21(.03)***[0.15, 0.27]0.07(.07)[-0.07, 0.21]
Constant0.10(.02)***[0.07, 0.15]0.57(.22)***[0.27, 1.22]2.16(.14)***[1.88, 2.43]3.73(.24)***[3.25, 4.20]
Adjusted R2--0.170.28
Wald χ2 (block 1)2,425.73***2,931.32***
Wald χ2 (block 2)1,585.76***489.89***

Notes: OR = odds ratio; SE = bootstrapped standard errors; CI = confidence interval; Coeff. = coefficient. The reference category was ‘no’ for all variables. Results are adjusted for all other variables in the table as well as covariates (block 1) from Table 1. After list-wise deletion, the unweighted sample sizes were 2,209 for urban youth and 625 for rural youth for volunteering yes/no, and among volunteers 1,544 versus 451 for hours; weighting from Statistics Canada. *p < .05. ***p < .001.

Barriers to volunteering

Results in Table 2 show that in rural regions, a preference to give money and the financial costs of volunteerism were most strongly associated with being a non-volunteer (OR = 3.60 and 2.74, respectively). For urban youth, the strongest predictor of non-volunteer status was not being asked to volunteer (OR = 2.45, p < .001). Lack of interest only predicted non-volunteer status for urban youth (OR = 1.32, p < .001). These results support our hypothesis that rural youth would report financial challenges related to volunteering, whereas urban youth would cite more socially oriented challenges (for example, not being asked). Among urban and rural volunteers, the ‘reasons for not volunteering more’ that were most strongly associated with contributing fewer volunteer hours were not being asked to volunteer and preferring to donate. Most barriers predicted fewer volunteer hours regardless of region and the magnitudes of these effects were comparable for urban and rural youth. We delved deeper into these findings by conducting qualitative interviews that asked youth about specific barriers to volunteering and whether these challenges were influenced by aspects of place.

Qualitative interviews

Qualitative interviews were conducted in two sites: an urban area (Ottawa) and a rural one (Renfrew County). Community characteristics of each region are presented in Table 3. The research team was based in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, and the fourth largest municipality in the country. Ottawa has several characteristics typical of urban living, such as a large number of professionals per capita (for example, engineers and people with PhDs) and a large percentage of immigrants. In contrast, Renfrew County is composed of 17 small municipalities and was selected because of its typical rural characteristics (for example, fewer immigrants, lower household incomes and a low population density). Additionally, Renfrew County is the largest geographic county in Ontario and relies heavily on the agricultural and forestry sector for generating wealth and employment (Brunton, 2014). Renfrew County was also a partner in a health initiative and had a network of contacts to facilitate recruitment. These regional differences are comparable to other rural and urban areas across Canada, namely that rural areas tend to have lower indicators of human capital and are more culturally homogenous (Barr et al, 2004; Moazzami, nd).

Table 3:

2016 census profile comparison of Ottawa and Renfrew County

OttawaRenfrew County
Population934,243102,394
Population density per square kilometre334.813.7
Population aged 65 and over (%)15.420.8
Youth aged 15–24 years old (%)13.510.6
Average total household income (2015)1$106,372$79,574
Employment rate (aged 15 years and over)62.6%56.8%
Unemployment rate (aged 15 years and over)7.2%7.2%
No certificate, diploma or degree for ages 25–64 in private households26.3%11.1%
University certificate, diploma or degree at bachelor level or above for ages 25–64 in private households345.0%15.8%
Language spoken most often at home4
 English73.7%95.8%
 French9.30%1.9%
 Non-official languages10.8%1.2%
 Multiple languages6.2%1.2%
Immigrants in private households523.6%5.5%
Commuting characteristics6
 Car, truck, van (driver)62.7%85.8%
 Public transit20.6%0.5%
 Other16.7%13.7%

Notes:

Income for private households (before taxes and deductions).

25% sample data.

25% sample data.

Excludes institutional residents.

25% sample data.

Main mode of commuting for members in the employed labour force aged 15 years and over in private households with a usual place of work or no fixed workplace address – 25% sample data.

Source: Statistics Canada (2017a; 2017b)

Participants. Sample characteristics are presented in Table 4. Our sample included 16 urban youth and 15 rural youth.3 There were 19 females and 12 males (mean age = 19.87, age range = 15–24). This sample is a decent representation of urban and rural profiles of Canada; urban regions have a greater percentage of immigrants and residents with higher levels of educational attainment (Moazzami, 2014), and youth in remote northern regions of Canadian provinces are less likely to pursue post-secondary education (Zarifa et al, 2017).

Table 4:

Characteristics of interview participants, by place of residence

Region
Urban (n = 16)Rural (n = 15)
n %n %
Gender
 Male4 (25.0)8 (53.3)
 Female12 (75.0)7 (46.7)
Age (years)M = 20.9 (SD = 2.1)M = 18.7 (SD = 2.9)
Born in Canada
 Yes11 (68.8)14 (93.3)
 No5 (31.3)1 (6.7)
Years in community
 Less than 5 years6 (37.5)0 (0.0)
 More than 5 years10 (62.5)15 (100.0)
Student status
 Student16 (100.0)10 (66.7)
 Non-student0 (0.0)5 (33.3)
Mother’s education
 University degree10 (62.5)7 (46.7)
 Post-secondary diploma5 (31.3)3 (20.0)
 Completed high school1 (6.3)3 (20.0)
 Less than high school0 (0.0)0 (0.0)
 Not stated/don’t know0 (0.0)2 (13.3)
Father’s education
 University degree9 (56.3)5 (33.3)
 Post-secondary diploma3 (18.8)1 (6.7)
 Completed high school2 (12.5)4 (26.7)
 Less than high school0 (0.0)3 (20.0)
 Not stated/don’t know2 (12.5)2 (13.3)
Household income
 < $20,0004 (25.0)0 (0.0)
 $20,000 to < $40,0001 (6.3)0 (0.0)
 $40,000 to < $60,0000 (0.0)1 (6.7)
 $60,000 to < $100,0002 (12.5)4 (26.7)
 $100,000 or more4 (25.0)3 (20.0)
 Not stated/don’t know5 (31.3)7 (46.7)

Note: M = mean; SD = standard deviation.

Procedure and analysis. An interview protocol was developed with questions and probes, which were guided by large themes from the CSGVP data, including: reasons for and barriers to volunteering; positive and negative volunteer experiences; recommendations to improve youth volunteering; and key skills acquired through volunteering. Convenience sampling was used to recruit participants. Youth in Ottawa were recruited through the distribution of posters in recreational centres, libraries, community centres and universities. Participants were initially recruited on a first-come, first-served basis, but invitations were tailored to ensure a diverse sample (for example, males and adolescents) as the study progressed. For the rural sample, community partners worked jointly with the researcher to recruit participants based on the researcher’s specifications. Interviews were conducted by the first author and lasted from 21 to 58 minutes. Participants were compensated with either a $10 iTunes gift card or a $10 Subway gift card. The study received Research Ethics Board approval and all youth consented to having their quotes used in the typescript.

Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coding was initially completed independently by the first author on a subset of transcripts. Once codes were operationally defined, a second researcher coded these transcripts separately. Discrepancies were discussed and negotiated until consensus was reached, then the first author completed the remainder of the coding in QDA Miner, version 4.0 software. Data matrices and conceptually ordered displays were used to analyse the data and draw comparisons between different themes and variables through cross-case analysis (Miles et al, 2014). Analytic memos were made throughout the process and were refined and updated as the study progressed. These cycles of data collection and analysis helped ensure that we reached data saturation by verifying that no new perspectives or themes were emerging from our key research questions.

Qualitative findings: reasons for volunteering

Youth mentioned a medley of self-serving and humanitarian motives for volunteering. Urban youth particularly volunteered for career reasons, as one participant said: “I also thought that it would probably help me in the future because I wanted to pursue a career being a paediatrician, so that’s also beneficial” (urban female, aged 19). Urban and rural youth volunteered to gain practical experience in their field of study, to build their curriculum vitae and to help improve on skills needed for their jobs. Youth also cited social reasons for volunteering, such as building networks. When discussing social-oriented motives, urban youth tended to mention their locality: “I felt like I’m, you know, in this big jungle kind of thing, where I don’t know what is it, where is it, so I thought meeting different people would give me, you know, their own experiences and it will help me understand the city and this country” (urban female, aged 24).

Post-secondary urban youth may face challenges socially integrating into their communities and acclimatising to new settings, whereas rural youth may be enmeshed in their tight-knit communities, which makes volunteerism more accessible to them. As one participant shared: “Basically my entire family, we’re all known here in the area, so any idea, like volunteer work, we just hop in” (rural male, aged 15).

Several youth also volunteered to help out, give back to the community and support people close to them: “So it was kind of a thing where it was like taught to us that helping others is a good thing” (urban female, aged 19). These values may be ascribed to the social and cultural assets and institutions that comprise urban–rural localities, such as churches, schools and networks that teach about charitable behaviour.

Social networks and institutions. Both urban and rural youth mentioned that knowing others who volunteer helped to facilitate their own volunteering, whether this was through encouragement, being asked to volunteer or volunteering in groups with others they know. Rural youth especially discussed the significant role of their mothers in promoting volunteerism. Regarding informal volunteering, one participant remarked: “I mean my mom really motivates me to do a lot of it. I don’t really hear about it but then she says ‘oh you gotta do this’ and I’m like ‘oh okay, I’ll go do that’” (rural male, aged 15). Another participant shared these sentiments: “If my mom wasn’t a 4H leader or didn’t do the things that she does, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into it” (rural female, aged 19). In addition to family influences, participants also learnt about formal volunteering through high-school community service hours, and many post-secondary students volunteered via outlets on campus. This suggested that sociocultural groups or institutions may be prime ingredients in cultivating youth volunteering opportunities.

Barriers and challenges

Feeling constrained and restricted. Time restrictions and other obligations (for example, school and work) were key challenges to volunteering. We probed deeper into the survey results, which found that not knowing how to volunteer predicted non-volunteer status for rural youth, and discovered that this could be linked to a perceived lack of opportunities in rural places. Rural youth cited limited opportunities in small towns and having to branch into different areas as barriers to volunteering. As one participant remarked: “I really don’t know what they have around here, they don’t have too much –just because it’s a small town and I guess looking more for business work, you know” (rural male, aged 19). From an ecological perspective, the intersectionality between individual-level factors (for example, age) and environmental conditions (for example, spatial/structural constraints) may shed light on volunteer barriers. As one participant said: “I think transportation [is a challenge] ’cause like you’re at an age where you can’t really drive alone” (rural female, aged 16). Young adolescents reported facing challenges to volunteering in rural places because of fewer public transit options and having to rely on others for commuting. Some rural youth, however, stated that opportunities are there if people actively search for them. One database for volunteers shows numerous community services in the Renfrew County region (The Community Resource Centre (Killaloe) Inc., 2014).

Social and emotional barriers. Many youth felt that their volunteer efforts were unappreciated: “They almost take it for granted, that like you’re expendable or that you can be replaced really easily, that they’re doing you a favour by having you volunteer for them” (urban male, aged 20). Urban youth especially experienced interpersonal conflicts, including poor teamwork, negative attitudes and feeling burdened with responsibilities. Rural youth reported fewer social challenges and this could be because rural communities emphasise social cohesion, uniformity and personal ties (Burnell, 2003). One participant expressed his views as follows: “Every one [volunteer activity] I’ve been in so far has been a welcoming group and cooperated all well together, and most of us have all been friends outside of it, so makes things a little easier as well” (rural male, 23). Urban non-profits may be larger and more diverse, which may expose youth to different personalities and ideologies.

Uncertainty: questioning impact and lacking motivation. To further examine the survey finding that urban youth may not volunteer due to a lack of interest, we directly asked youth about their perceptions on the value of volunteering and whether they found their experiences enjoyable. Many urban youth questioned the value and impact of their volunteering, and some lacked the motivation to continue with their volunteer commitments. As one participant commented: “Although it’s funny ’cause I feel like I’ve grown more from actual jobs, maybe because I was paid to do them, and so I felt able to take on more in terms of challenges and opportunities” (urban female, aged 20). Rural participants held the perception that small amounts of helping are meaningful to the community, which may reflect neighbourliness being a strong norm in rural regions. It may be engrained in rural youth that volunteers are indispensable conduits through which social services and organisations can thrive.

Promoting and improving volunteerism: recommendations from youth

Target effectively. Youth proposed that volunteering opportunities should be better advertised online (for example, on social media) and more tailored to youth: “Especially with people our age too, like nobody reads newspaper, and that’s where they post it all” (rural female, aged 23). Urban youth wished for more guidance in finding volunteer opportunities, such as implementing programmes for students, whereas for rural youth, schools were vital in promoting volunteer opportunities. Rural participants suggested spreading awareness about volunteering through social connections. Rural networks are denser than those in larger cities, which may allow for residents to receive information sooner (Burt, 2000).

Be more flexible. Youth expressed that organisations should offer more flexible hours, and short-term and youth-oriented opportunities, and assist with the financial costs of volunteering. As one participant mentioned: “Maybe having bus tickets available or something for students to get to these positions” (urban female, aged 22). Participants were also mindful that some youth have unequal opportunities to volunteer because of limited resources, such as low-income rural families lacking a vehicle or adequate transportation options.

Emphasise the value of volunteering. Several participants felt that organisations need to better communicate and instil the values of volunteering in youth. The value systems of youth may be influenced by sociocultural elements in the macrosystem, including societal norms, customs and the actions/attitudes of community members. Rural youth particularly championed informal activities because helping with ordinary tasks (for example, cutting grass) is part of the rural livelihood: “They’re [informal activities] local, they’re simpler to do, they’re better learning experiences for simpler things in life that you’re going to need, more than something you’re never going to use again” (rural male, aged 15).

Youth volunteer outcomes

Youth reported important outcomes that emerged from volunteering such as competence, which included having positive views about one’s actions (for example, decision-making skills), and feeling that they made a difference to people’s lives. Some youth also displayed confidence (that is, an internal sense of self-worth and efficacy) during their discussions, citing that they brought positive outlooks to the beneficiaries and became more approachable. Urban and rural volunteers reported changes in their moral character, such as becoming more compassionate: “And also my empathy has grown a lot from that; I’ve learnt to care about people more than I did like even a few months ago” (urban male, aged 20).

Several youth demonstrated respect for societal and cultural norms. As one participant said: “I definitely like realise that putting my community first is better than just having money” (rural male, aged 16). Rural areas are more dependent on volunteers, thus youth in these contexts may especially become attuned to the communal aspect of civil society. Finally, volunteering helped youth build trust, new relationships and contacts for future career endeavours: “I think really meeting people and being part of much bigger nodes within a network was really exciting” (urban female, 22). In urban areas where networks are more diffused, volunteering may be one channel for youth to build social capital and strengthen their place attachment.

Discussion

Findings from this study confirm the suitability of using a socioecological framework to understand the interplay between individual and contextual characteristics in youth volunteerism. To date, most studies on youth volunteerism have mostly focused on personal characteristics, but this study shows that there are unique levers and challenges for urban and rural youth, and that researchers should not neglect the role of the built and social environmental context in shaping volunteer experiences.

While research shows that social groups are key agents that encourage and mobilise youth volunteering (Sundeen and Raskoff, 2000; Francis, 2011), this study reveals that social connections are especially important to rural youth volunteerism, possibly because of the emphasis on family and peer networks in rural communities (Crockett et al, 2000). This supports Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory that characteristics of the microsystem can impact behaviour (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). There is greater emphasis on filial responsibility in rural places, as evidenced by the predominance of social exchanges with kin (Hofferth and Iceland, 1998), thus youth may volunteer to preserve the family image. Further, parental volunteering may encourage prosocial values in their children because parents act as role models who socialise youth to volunteer (see, for example, Bekkers, 2004). Similarly, schools particularly seemed to be a repository of rural culture, and indeed, schools in rural areas have been found to act as a social hub, nurturing community activities (Burney and Cross, 2006). For urban youth, career-oriented motives and wishing to explore one’s strengths may be attributed to sociocultural elements of metropolitan areas, such as more impersonal relations, occupational specialisations and individualism. These features are characteristics of what Bronfenbrenner (1979) called the macrosystem in his ecological theory and can shape youth development. These findings have practical implications for how volunteer opportunities are crafted and recruitment strategies are developed.

Results suggested that barriers to volunteering may also vary by aspects of place. Distance appeared to be an impediment for rural youth who lack financial resources to volunteer because people with a low income and education tend to be more vulnerable to exclusion in rural areas (Shucksmith and Philip, 2000). Factors that impact rural residents’ access to social capital include inadequate transportation, costs of community events and a lack of opportunities for youth (Buck-McFadyen et al, 2019). For urban youth, not being asked to volunteer may partly be a by-product of city culture where networks are not as close-knit and youth may be less integrated in their communities. Targeted solutions by region, such as carpooling options and information sessions, may help combat volunteer challenges.

The survey findings showed that for rural youth, a preference to give money and financial barriers predicted non-volunteer status, which seems paradoxical. Volunteer costs may be perceived to be greater than the amount that youth donate through charitable giving. The volunteering and giving behaviour of rural youth should be examined in tandem to illuminate this finding.

The findings that a lack of interest predicted non-volunteer status for urban youth and that urban interviewees were less motivated to volunteer can be understood within an ecological systems theory: culturally, city dwellers may have fewer strong connections to civic life than rural residents, thus are more likely to lack interest in volunteering (Sundeen et al, 2007). Further, the impact of volunteering may be more visible in smaller towns than in larger cities. Providing volunteer feedback is important because youth are more receptive to community engagement when their efforts are recognised as meaningful (Brennan et al, 2007).

Our results have relevance across different contexts and countries as international studies report similar urban and rural differences as found in the Canadian context. Rural residents in the UK recently reported living challenges, such as poor infrastructure, limited access to leisure activities or services, a decline in health and wellbeing, poor transport networks and few employment opportunities (Skerratt, 2018). Similar urban–rural divides exist in Japan, and across sub-Saharan Africa: rural areas have higher out-migration of youth, higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, ageing public infrastructures and limited access to commercial services, public transportation and healthcare facilities (Feldhoff, 2013; Brinkerhoff et al, 2018). Regional characteristics shape the motives and barriers related to volunteerism.

Limitations and future directions

We were limited by the survey data as the questions on motivations and barriers were closed-ended, which made it difficult to directly compare the qualitative and quantitative results. Future surveys should consider ratings of volunteer satisfaction, the quality of the volunteer’s relationship with the organisation and the overall volunteer experience. The CSGVP did not ask about motives, barriers or skills related to informal volunteering, which is important considering that rural residents are often more engaged through informal types of helping (Barr et al, 2004). In the survey, only volunteers were asked about their motives for volunteering; non-volunteers were excluded from many analyses, which may induce a selection bias in the results. Future studies might gain from considering regionalism on a continuum, and using multi-level modelling where data are available to allow for these types of analyses. Although we recognise that the survey data are more than ten years old, there are empirical trends of stability in national institutional surveys, and the rural and urban landscapes in Canada have not evolved significantly within this timeframe to expect any major differences in the findings. No major historical changes affected volunteerism in recent years, until the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, future studies should compare trends with the pre-COVID baseline, and in view of school closures, more unemployment, a reliance on virtual volunteerism and less internet connectivity in rural versus urban areas.

Based on reached and willing participants, our findings predominantly reflect perspectives from youth who have a volunteer history and are from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic status groups. Future research should examine youth from different socioeconomic backgrounds and marginalised statuses. The interviews were limited to two regions of Ontario and thus the findings are not generalisable to all regions across Canada. Additionally, most studies that have explored contextual predictors of volunteerism are limited to North American and European societies and future research should explore whether these findings are relevant in less developed countries. These remain empirical questions that future surveys will need to address. A systematic matrix of similarities and differences between rural and urban youth for formal and informal volunteering would be a major asset for planners and policy makers.

Conclusion

Findings from this study suggest that the experiences of young volunteers may be illuminated through socioecological theories that consider aspects of the built, cultural and social characteristics of the regions where youth reside. Specifically, people are nested within multiple, interactive and dynamic contextual systems, which can influence their development, either directly or indirectly (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 2006). In this study, youth volunteering was not only influenced by individual factors (for example, age) and family modelling (for example, parents volunteering), but these factors depended on the larger environment in which youth were embedded. As supported by our socioecological approach to understanding volunteerism, individuals are part of a collective based on social norms and cultural values (Bronfenbrenner, 2000). Social motives for volunteering predicted greater volunteer commitment among rural youth; as well, rural youth cited fewer social barriers than urban youth, which corroborates rural sociological discourse that emphasises the prominence of social cohesion in small towns and communities. Many volunteer challenges, such as contextual barriers for rural youth (for example, transportation) and social/cultural barriers for urban youth (for example, not being asked) are amenable to change and intervention. Non-profits and community stakeholders are encouraged to understand the sociocultural characteristics of a targeted region because one-size-fits-all approaches may not be an effective solution for the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Notes

1

For the 2007 CSGVP, data were adjusted to align personal income categories with those from the Survey of Labour Income Dynamics to reduce the impact of higher non-response among higher-income individuals, whereas this adjustment was not possible in the 2010 CSGVP due to a lack of data on personal income. However, the two methodologies were very comparable and the impact on volunteer rate and hours was similar for both years (Statistics Canada, 2012).

2

Participants from the Territories were recruited with a different methodology, thus were excluded from our analyses.

3

One participant lived on the outskirts of Renfrew County but was included on the basis that they resided in a rural area and the focus of the study was to examine urban and rural differences.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank those who participated in the interviews to help us better understand their perspectives and lived experiences of volunteering. Quantitative data for this project came from Statistics Canada, accessed through their research data centres. This project was part of a larger grant, funded by Employment and Social Development Canada under grant 11699964. This research was supported by funds to the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN) from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Statistics Canada. Although the research and analysis are based on data from Statistics Canada, the opinions expressed do not represent the views of Statistics Canada or the CRDCN.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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