Recruiting and Retaining Youth LeadersRecruitment and retention are a vital components of a health center’s youth work. Strategies to recruit youth and keep them engaged should be created early when developing a youth engagement program and carried into implementation.

Keep in mind that different youth face different challenges and may have obstacles to participating in engagement opportunities. Adults should encourage these young people to talk about their backgrounds and recognize how their perspectives add value to the health center. When youth are able to address their concerns in real time, they are more likely to feel safe to contribute to the group.1


“The most important lesson is to recruit from different areas and exhaust all of the possibilities. We tend to overuse our youth and expect them to be so engaged in the work they’re doing without properly serving them and their needs. We ask a lot of them and we need to come back with things to offer them as well.”

-Massah Massaquoi, Senior Research Assistant, The Fenway Institute

Successful recruitment strategies rely on the health center staff’s familiarity with the school and the larger community and their ability to cultivate leadership in youth from different academic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Before recruitment can begin, though, adult coordinators must understand the purpose of their youth engagement efforts and how youth-driven these efforts will be. Also be mindful of taking on a guiding role for a young person who may be new to youth leadership work and facilitate a peer-to-peer partnership to ease their transition into the youth engagement program.

Where to Recruit Youth Leaders

Recruitment efforts can pull from a variety of places throughout the school and community. Work with staff and youth to plan outreach efforts, that can take place in some of the following areas:

  • Existing youth programs
  • School leadership programs, community service clubs, sports teams, and after-school groups
  • Health center-sponsored events and activities
  • Health-related academic programs
  • Popular hang-out locations, such as libraries, community parks, and recreation centers

Adult coordinators can also look within the health center for youth who can become champions for school and adolescent health. Youth who frequent the health center and demonstrate a desire for leadership can offer a genuine level of participation because of their familiarity with the center and its services. Alternatively, youth who may have demonstrated little involvement in activities could also benefit from an empowering youth engagement opportunity.

How to Recruit Youth Leaders

Adults can use some of the following strategies to recruit students for their youth engagement programs. If there is already some youth involvement, they can collaborate with adults on these strategies:

  • On-campus outreach: Post flyers announcing the health center’s new youth engagement opportunity that convey the purpose of the group and highlight incentives for participation.
  • Classroom presentations: Coordinate with teachers to provide short in-class presentations on services and youth leadership work. Use this time to hand out informational brochures on the center and other adolescent health topics.
  • Recruitment drives: Hold recruitment drives during the school year. An open house event is useful for introducing both the health center and youth engagement opportunities to students. Timing your recruitment drives to coordinate with the end of sports seasons may be ideal because youth can commit more time during the off-season.
  • Peer-to-peer word of mouth: Youth can recruit their friends to participate. Consider finding one or two early-adopter youth interested in participating in a youth advisory council (YAC) who can serve as recruitment consultants and/or leaders.
  • Individual recruitment: Personally invite youth who you feel would benefit from leadership opportunities and engagement in the health center’s work. Staff may also turn to school faculty for recommendations.
  • Social media, photos, and videos: Try to utilize online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to reach greater audiences and generate discussion about the emerging program. Share videos and photos from past youth engagement projects, allied organizations, and other health centers to get young people excited to participate.

Questions to Consider

There are many important questions you need to ask yourself when developing your recruitment strategy. Be sure to consider:

  • The characteristics of the program: How many youth will be recruited? Will there be gender balance in the group? Consider the demographics of the population served by the health center. Is it important for the group to have diverse ethnic and socioeconomic representation? If so, how will you be mindful of this during recruitment?
  • The application process: Will the application be competitive or voluntary? What questions should the application include? Will applicants be interviewed? What established expectations will be shared with the applicants? Is there a need for parental/guardian consent or media waiver forms?
  • The structure of your informational session or introductory meeting: What is the basic structure of the group? To what extent will youth lead? What level of youth involvement is needed? How will adults be involved? What are the incentives for youth involvement? Will there be stipends for the youth? Will community-service hours be offered? What time commitments should youth expect to make in order to participate?


“Keep them interested by not repeating content. Every term, give them the opportunity to give a list of things they want to see by the following year or next retreat. Having them envision what they want keeps them actively involved.”

-Massah Massaquoi, Senior Research Assistant, The Fenway Institute

In the beginning, youth activities in health centers may draw large interest from potential participants, and it’s only natural that the number of youth may dwindle after the first meeting. Responsive and active retention strategies will keep young leaders connected to the group. Adult coordinators should build a community for these young people by:

Establishing expectations: Once a group of young people has been formed, the group should establish agreements that incorporate the assets and expectations of its members. The agreements should include logistical expectations, be mindful of how much time youth can realistically devote, and clearly state the responsibilities of youth and adult members. The group agreements should be developed by youth to ensure accountability and ownership of the work.

Providing incentives: When thinking about retention and youth engagement, adults should always ask, “What’s in it for the youth?” For many youth, the idea of contributing to school and community wellness is often incentive enough, but also consider stipends, skills trainings, and healthy snacks as motivations for program participation. Résumé building, community service hours, and professional and social networking can also be reasons for retention.

Meeting and communicating consistently: Consistent communication creates a sense of group meaning, direction, and work. The youth team should establish its meeting schedule and identify its most reliable method of communication. Youth-generated meeting schedules and activities increase self-efficacy and participants’ commitment. For long-term project plans, establishing several short-term objectives will foster a feeling of group progress and give more reason for sustained involvement.

Connecting young people to each other: Many youth teams implement a peer-to-peer partnership model that helps keep youth connected to one another and the responsibilities of their team. Well-connected teams are sensitive to members’ needs and can recognize when external factors become challenges to participation. Adults should uphold open communication between themselves and youth leaders and support an environment that gives youth the opportunity to candidly share their concerns.

Principles of Retention

  • Create opportunities for people to take on more responsibility: Youth stay involved in activities because they feel like they are making a difference and learning new skills. Be sure to involve every member of your youth group and assign them tasks. Even something as simple as hanging a few posters can keep a young person engaged.
  • Grade-level/age variation: Recruiting youth from different grade levels can prevent the “graduating out” effect that many youth programs encounter. Younger leaders can help sustain the program after their older peers have left school or pursued other activities. Consider recruiting freshmen and sophomores for better program sustainability.
  • Correspondence: Regular correspondence and check-ins remind adult allies and youth leaders of their participation. Even a few casual check-ins during school breaks support a more personable group work ethic.
  • Youth-driven planning: Figure out a way to balance youth-driven planning with a structure and initial goals set by the adult coordinator.
  • Early and ongoing successes: Make sure that ongoing and publically-acknowledged successes are a mainstay in all forms of group work. For example, if the health center implements a peer health education program, all participating students should be given a special award once they have completed their training and practice sessions.
  • Group evaluation and assessment: Consider facilitating an end-of-the-year or group project evaluation with staff and youth. During the evaluation, be sure to reflect on initial group expectations and have everyone rate their overall experience. Assess readiness for the upcoming year and think about what team practices should be maintained or improved upon, and whether new skills training should be included.


  1. National Resource Center for Youth Development.  Member Outreach.  Available at: Accessed June 2015.