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HBA students are changing the volunteer experience

  • Dawn Milne
  • |
  • May 31, 2019
HBA students are changing the volunteer experience

Brennan Wong

It’s not enough just to encourage more young people to volunteer, you have to create an environment where they are empowered to better our world.

That’s the new focus of Pledges for Change, a student-led not-for-profit organization founded by Brennan Wong, HBA ’19. In 2018, Wong and the Pledges for Change team, in collaboration with Deloitte, created a blueprint for a new pilot project program exploring how novel forms of volunteer experiences might contribute to further strengthening youth volunteerism in Canada. In designing the first pilot project, which began this past December, the organization hosted focus groups and one-on-one discussions with students, not-for-profit organizations, and other key stakeholders in London. Among other things, these sessions revealed young people want to develop skills they can use in the workforce while they volunteer.

Now fast forward to the summer of 2019.

Amanda Wu and Dawson Li, both HBA ’20 candidates, will spend the summer working with London organizations to design a pilot project offering new volunteer experiences focused on skills development. Wu and Li are the new Co-Executive Directors of Pledges for Change since Wong has moved into an advisory role with the organization. Their goal is to launch the pilot project later this year to test whether such experiences could help better engage and retain young volunteers across the city.

“Volunteering is often the first real-world experience that high school students have before entering the workplace. We want to work with stakeholders to discover ways to make volunteer opportunities more valuable to both the youth and the organizations,” said Wu.

The power of the community

It’s a shift for Pledges for Change, which Wong founded in 2013 while in high school. It all started with a three-week trip to Ecuador with WE (then called Free the Children) to volunteer on a school-building project. Bad weather delayed construction so the community elders called for a Minga – a neighborhood collaboration to better the community – to finish the school. That effort inspired Wong to create Pledges for Change, which began as a campaign in his community that spotlighted pressing local and international social issues. Every time someone made a pledge to volunteer in support of these causes through the organization’s website, Pledges for Change would match the pledge with a $1-donation to a charity addressing the same issue, using money raised from private donations and corporate sponsors.

“Through my Ecuador experience, I saw the power a community can have when it comes together so I wanted to start a campaign at my high school where I could hopefully excite my peers around the idea of volunteering and recreate the Minga mentality,” he said. “It was this idea that if we could all just take simple actions to make a difference… imagine the impact that young people can make.”

Since then Pledges for Change has run a variety of different community programming, including:

  • Ignite Fair – An annual volunteer fair that began in 2014. It connects students with not-for-profit organizations in the Greater Toronto Area. Each year it attracts 500 to 600 young people and 40 to 50 organizations; and,
  • Hacking Good – An annual hackathon that challenges high school and post-secondary students to design technology-based solutions that address one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Although the initiative is currently on hiatus, in its inaugural year in 2017, it brought together more than 70 students who developed 11 ideas to address the sustainable development goal surrounding quality education for all. 

Creating solutions

Instead of independently running its own programming, Pledges for Change has shifted its efforts toward working with not-for-profit sector partners to positively change the volunteer experience for youth across Canada.

“We don’t want to limit our efforts to just encouraging young people to participate in already-created volunteer opportunities. While that work is fantastic and definitely needs to be done, we believe that we can create an even greater impact by playing a role in fundamentally changing the way that youth engage with not-for-profit organizations,” said Wong. “We’re having young people themselves create solutions to address the barriers and challenges that are preventing youth from becoming avid volunteers.”

Wong said Pledges for Change’s new pilot project element was inspired by experiences he had at Ivey. He co-led the 2018 Ivey Community Consulting Project, a program that matches Ivey students with not-for-profit organizations in London and Toronto for pro-bono consulting projects. He also took the course 4620 Impact Assessment where he learned about measuring and interpreting organizations’ impact. Both were some of the key motivators for revamping Pledges for Change to focus on finding ways to improve volunteer opportunities made available to youth.

“Pledges for Change has never really been an organization per se, it has always been a movement of young people… a collection of young people who believe in the same thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it would be exciting to see youth volunteerism in the country make leaps and bounds in terms of how young volunteers are mobilized to make a difference. Ultimately, our organization’s vision is to create communities where young people see volunteerism as a tool to drive effective social change.”

Here’s a by-the-numbers look at the results of Pledges for Change’s programming from 2013 to date:

6,000

Young people involved

100

Not-for-profit partners

27,000

Hours of volunteer service contributed through programming