Youth Service Organizations

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civic Responsibility/Virtue
Youth Club
Young people have the time and talent to make a difference in the world. With a little guidance and freedom to make choices, youth can respond to need with volunteerism, advocacy, voice, and resources. There are a variety of youth service organizations that provide structure, resources, and ideas.

Authored by JoAnna Ness


Youth service organizations exist to promote social change through providing opportunities for youth to give their time and talent to improve their communities and the world. The definition of “youth” varies widely according to the application of the term, and there is no agreed upon age range of people who belong in this category. UNESCO describes youth as those who are beyond the dependency of childhood but have not yet reached the independence of adulthood. The United Nations uses ages 15-24 to define youth, but other organizations may choose to broaden this range in both directions (UNESCO). In this case, “service” refers to an action undertaken voluntarily to help others. The impetus and governance of these organizations may be driven by adults or youth, often depending on the scale and complexity of the organization. Some large organizations with many small branches will have both youth and adults fulfilling leadership roles.

Youth service groups take a variety of forms. Some organizations meet monthly at schools to plan group service activities such as cleaning up trash along a highway. Other youth service organizations, such as the organization City Year, can involve a formal volunteer role at a specific location for a certain period of time. Through project planning and reflection, youth volunteers learn important leadership skills, gain community voice, and develop a network of civic-minded peers.

Historic Roots

Young people have often volunteered with family and in their communities. Within the past century, this has become more formal. Key Club, regarded as the oldest youth service organization, was started in 1925 at Sacramento High School (SHS) in Sacramento, California. It was created by the California State Commissioner of Schools and a SHS vocational teacher to combat the negative effects of harmful fraternities and social clubs by providing a platform for youth to positively impact their communities (CNH Key Club). The intent was to provide opportunities for youth service and develop good role models for students. Only boys were allowed to become members of the club until 1976.

Although youth service organizations are not a new concept, they have increased in popularity in recent years. Youth volunteerism has been on the rise for the past 60 years. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s caused a spike in the number of youth participating in civic programs that has continued to this day with the exception of a dip during the Vietnam War. Today, many schools require volunteer activities for graduation, as a consideration of college scholarships, or as a component of honor societies, which has helped encourage more youth volunteerism (Independent Sector).


Young people often do not have the same financial abilities as older generations, and they may not be able to make a donation to support causes about which they are passionate. However, money is only one element of philanthropy. Gifts of time and talent can have a substantial impact in a community, and youth can use these tools to become active philanthropists. One survey found that although 93% of young people are interested in volunteering, the reality is that 20-55% follow through (,Youth Service America). When schools, churches, and extracurricular clubs provide opportunities for engagement, they increase the likelihood of youth volunteerism. This includes requirements for community service as set by schools or colleges. Youth service organizations are also important because a large portion of the population (1/3 in the United States and ½ globally) is 25 years of age or younger (Youth Service America). As a result of their ability to mobilize large groups of the world’s population, youth service organizations can be powerful creators of social change. Organizations that connect youth and develop their social network of volunteering peers also have a positive effect on volunteerism, as the percentage of youth who volunteer jumps from 41.7-75.9% when they have friends who also volunteer regularly (Youth Service America).

The impact of specific youth service organizations varies depending on the type of organization. For example, studies of City Year have shown that their youth volunteers make schools more likely to do well on evaluations of English and Math competence (City Year). Global Youth Service Day, which is an international day of volunteering, creates awareness of the ability of youth to give back and often transforms communities through ambitious beautification projects (Global Youth Service Day). In addition to impacting society, youth service organizations also benefit the young people who participate. They learn responsibility as they organize service projects, problem solving skills as they consider how to address a need, and develop empathy as they are encouraged to think of people other than themselves. These skills become embedded in the young generation when youth service organizations actively involve them in community projects. When considering these effects as a whole, it is clear that the impact of youth service organizations in effecting social change is significant.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Voluntary action is a key element of philanthropy. Youth service organizations provide opportunities for youth to learn about philanthropy as a tool for creating social change. They also help develop the pipeline of future philanthropists by encouraging habits of giving. In general, people who volunteer tend to donate more to nonprofits than those who do not volunteer (Tempel 2016). This also continues as people age. Youth who volunteer are more likely to donate larger amounts than non-volunteers in similar income brackets and to continue volunteering as an adult (Youth Service America). Youth service organizations can expose young people to a variety of nonprofits, and they can discover organizations and causes that align with their interests and values. They may use these experiences to guide future giving and develop loyalty to those organizations they might not otherwise have known existed.

The long-lasting impact of youth service organizations should be critically considered by nonprofits, who would benefit greatly from developing programs that engage and inspire youth volunteers. The work accomplished by these volunteers would likely have a benefit that outweighs the time and effort of volunteer coordination, as it could be designed to act as an investment in the nonprofit’s future donor, volunteer, and advocate base. These opportunities for involvement might vary widely, from asking students to help at special events to allowing young people to service on a nonprofit’s board of directors. As youth engage in service and become more civic minded, nonprofits will be working to develop the next generation of passionate, informed, and inspired community leaders. Youth who engage in service can consider themselves a valuable resource for nonprofits and the community in general.

Key Related Ideas

Civic Engagement: This includes purposeful work that is done for the benefit of the public as well as an “awareness of how citizens should behave” (Anheier 2014). Youth service organizations can introduce young citizens to the concept of civility and the role of social networks and trust in a community. They learn to see themselves as part of a larger group, and they develop a sense of responsibility for contributing to the overall success of that group.

Social Capital: The connections people have with each other are a valuable resource, similar to financial and human capital. These connections are built on the idea of reciprocity and trust, or doing a favor for a friend with the expectation that they will repay the favor in the future. Bonding social capital is created when people within a homogenous group strengthen their connections. Bridging social capital develops when people work together across different groups. Youth service organizations connect people who are interested in helping others, and they may come from different backgrounds. By providing opportunities for youth to work together in planning and participating in projects, they help develop bonding and bridging social capital (Putnam 2000).

Service learning: This is a course or extracurricular that uses experiential learning to teach students. They learn about a subject in class and, through community service and volunteer projects, gain a deeper understanding of the concept through reflection (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching). Youth service organizations can continue the classroom service learning process by serving as a bridge between schools and community nonprofit, connecting students with organizations who need people to volunteer.

Youth Philanthropy: In addition to giving their time, some youth also make financial gifts. They may pool their limited funds to make a bigger impact and support a cause, such as their local food pantry. Organized, formal youth grantmaking and philanthropy is supported across the globe in a variety of forms. Many foundations, including community foundations, allocate dollars for the purpose of allowing young people to evaluate local projects and disperse those funds to support them. Youth who participate in these programs learn skills such as responsibility and how to solve problems creatively (Dillon 2014).   

Important People Related to the Topic

Michael Brown (1960- ): Brown is the cofounder and current CEO of City Year, which is a nonprofit organization that connects young volunteers with a one-year commitment to serve in low-income or struggling schools (City Year).

Steven Culbertson (1957- ): Culbertson is the President and CEO of Youth Service America. He developed Global Youth Service Day in 2000 and Semester of Service in 2008 (Traynor 2016). He is also an author on Huffington Post, writing articles about youth service (Huffington Post).

President Bill Clinton (1946- ): During his presidency, Bill Clinton encouraged volunteerism and civic engagement among youth (Clinton Foundation). He helped create AmeriCorps through the National Community Service Trust Act of 1993 (Corporation for National and Community Service).

Shaun Verma (1994- ): When he was 15 years old, Shaun founded a nonprofit called MD Junior, which connects high school students with college mentors and empowers young people to learn about public health and engage in community development projects (MD Junior). In 2012, he received the most prestigious award offered by Youth Service America, the Harris Wofford Award, in recognition for his efforts to encourage youth to participate in service (Youth Service America).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

AmeriCorps has 75,000 members annually, who volunteer at nonprofits, schools, and other organizations. They develop leadership skills, work towards solving community issues, and build capacity at organizations through AmeriCorps NCCC and AmeriCorps VISTA (

City Year volunteers serve as tutors, teachers, and coaches in needy schools throughout the globe. These volunteers are generally young enough to connect with students as “near peers” while also serving as a positive role model and educator (

Global Youth Service Day is an annual world-wide weekend event celebrating youth volunteerism. Organized by Youth Service America in conjunction with local partners, this event provides an opportunity for millions of youth to engage in community service and develop their civil mindedness (

Key Club is a Kiwanis International program through which high school students lead service projects and fundraising projects. Over 270,000 youth volunteer through Key Club in 38 countries (

Youth Giving is a website and resource bank for youth organizations around the world to share best practices and gain inspiration from each other. It was created in partnership by the Foundation Center, the Frieda C. Cox Family Foundation, and many other foundations and organizations to collect and share data about youth grantmaking. Some of the youth grantmaking organizations with whom they work include YACS (Youth Advisory Committees) who serve in communities around the United States, often with funding from foundations (

Youth Service America is a national nonprofit that provides funding and coordinates service initiatives, such as Global Youth Service Day and Semester of Service, to encourage youth to become active citizens. YSA also distributes training resources and recognizes exceptional volunteers (


Reflection Question - What unique perspectives and talents do youth possess that can be valuable for service opportunities?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Anheier, Helmut. "Social Entrepreneurship" in Nonprofit Organizations: Theory, Management, Policy, 262-268. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • City Year. Impact.
  • City Year. Senior Leadership.
  • Clinton Foundation. Thank Bill Clinton for AmeriCorps.
  • CNH Key Club. What is Key Club?
  • Corporation for National & Community Service. Legislation.
  • Dillon, A., and J. Bokoff. Scanning the Landscape of Youth Philanthropy: Observations and Recommendations for Strengthening a Growing Field. Issuelab, 2014. 4-9.
  • DoSomething.Org. Index on Young People and Volunteering.
  • Huffington Post. Steven Culbertson.
  • Independent Sector. Engaging Youth in Lifelong Service.
  • MD Junior. Mission.
  • Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Tempel, Eugene. “Major Gifts.” In Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, edited by Timothy Seiler and Dwight Burlingame, 229. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016.
  • Traynor, Ryan. “Amazing Mentor! Spotlight with Steve Culbertson.” Amazing Kids! Magazine, April 2016,
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. What do we mean by “youth”?
  • Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?
  • Youth Service America. About YSA.
  • Youth Service America. Why Youth Service.
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.