To ensure student programs like the Canada Student Service Grant are effective, they must be designed based on evidence and best practices.

Since Prime Minister Trudeau announced the Canada Student Service Grant on June 25, to say controversy has swirled around the initiative is an understatement. The federal ethics commissioner, at the request of two opposition parties, is investigating the circumstances around the awarding of a since-cancelled $900-million contract to the WE Charity for the administration of the grant. Meanwhile, concerns have been raised from within the nonprofit sector on everything from the program delivery to the design.

The Canada Student Service Grant was initially designed to give post-secondary students and recent post-secondary graduates $1,000 for each 100 hours of service they complete between the end of June and the end of October 2020, up to a maximum of $5,000. These volunteer hours would be carried out through organizations that had posted volunteer opportunities on the “I Want To Help” online platform. This program, which now will be administrated by the public service, is currently on hold as the government determines next steps.

It is unusual for a youth-focused program to receive so much attention and even more rare for a youth-focused program to find itself at the centre of a public controversy. This moment offers an opportunity to go deeper than just scrutinizing the nature of a contract. By examining what impactful and meaningful youth service policy and programs can look like, we can ensure that future youth service programs are designed and implemented with evidence and leading practices in mind.

In 2018, the Youth and Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo was contracted by Employment and Social Development Canada to conduct a systematized literature review around leading practices in youth volunteerism and service. The resulting report outlined leading practices in youth service and volunteerism, summarizing 112 articles and reports from academia and practitioners.

Below we offer some of our key findings that we hope are useful for thinking through what future youth service programs in Canada might look like so as to maximize the benefits for young people and for communities.

Young people are not synonymous with students

To be eligible for the Canada Student Service Grant, young people must be enrolled in post-secondary education or be a recent post-secondary graduate. But when it comes to designing youth service programs, it is first important to recognize that not all young people between 18 and 29 are students. Young people are as diverse as any other age group, and while many choose to go to college or university after high school, others go straight into the job market and others still struggle and land in the “NEET” category – Not in Education, Employment, or Training.

The research is clear that Black, Indigenous and other racialized young people, those of lower socio-economic-status, and those who have not attended post-secondary institutions are less likely to take part in service programs. As such, a program that encourages youth volunteerism and service and that is solely focused on students is targeting a group that is more likely to be engaged in the first place.

It is essential that we do the hard work of engaging young people who are less likely to get involved and less likely to have access to opportunities. Meaningful and impactful youth service programs ensure accessibility for all young people, not just those enrolled in post-secondary education.

Organizations need capacity to support young people

We need to ensure that civil society organizations that participate in the Canada Student Service Grant have the capacity to meaningfully support the young people they host as volunteers.

A key finding from the literature review is that meaningful intergenerational collaboration is essential to effective youth service programs. This means young people working in collaboration with adults. These could include decision-makers or mentors from within the host organizations or from the broader community. Organizations that are hosting young people to engage in service need to first lay the groundwork of ensuring their environments are youth-friendly and open to young people’s ideas, and they also need to ensure that young people will be supported by mentors and have opportunities to connect with the broader community. This is relational work that takes a lot of time and effort. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily and it requires significant capacity from the nonprofit or charitable organizations that are hosting and supporting young people.

Another finding from this report is that program success depends on young people being able to do meaningful work in the context of a service placement. They must feel valued and not just like they’re a source of cheap labour. Creating meaningful work placements also takes organizational capacity, as does the training and support needed to carry out the work asked of them.

Organizations such as Imagine Canada have clearly articulated the struggles that civil society is facing as a result of COVID-19 and the reality that many organizations in the sector are in fact struggling to just survive. Volunteer Canada has also outlined what social infrastructure is needed to ensure programs such as the Canada Student Service Grant are a success. Non-profit and charitable organizations can’t just be expected to host young volunteers without first being given the resources and capacity they need to do so.

Including youth voices in program design and delivery

The research is clear that youth must participate in the program design and delivery in order for those programs to meet the needs of young people. This is particularly important for programs that hope to engage Indigenous young people. When young people are meaningfully engaged, programs are more innovative and more impactful for both the young people themselves and the communities they work in.

We don’t have a lot of information about how the Canada Student Service Grant was designed or who was involved; however, what this controversy makes clear is that a more collabrative and transparent approach is needed moving forward. Youth-serving organizations and youth engagement experts should be engaged in these next steps. But we are also lucky in Canada to have a strong community of youth-led nonprofit organizations that do innovative work, are led by diverse young people, and that are changing their communities for the better. These youth-led organizations should not only have a seat at the table, they should be active partners in developing youth-focused policy and delivering programs.

The controversy surrounding the Canada Student Service Grant is an opportunity to reflect on what meaningful and impactful youth service policy and programs look like. By doing so, we will not only be ensuring a bright future for our young people, we will also be building stronger and more resilient communities for all of us.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by LightField Studios