Over the years, Marie has progressively abolished all barriers to youth citizen engagement. She uses three strategies to promote youth civic service throughout France. First, she has formulated a unique program and a legal framework to facilitate hands-on civic engagement experiences to youth; second, she supports COs to better manage volunteers and work efficiently with this new generation of changemakers; and third, she gathers players in the field of youth civic engagement to develop youth social entrepreneurship. Together, these three approaches have created the foundations for an enabling and supportive environment for youth civic engagement in France.
Marie has designed a smart program highly valuable for volunteers in terms of developing professional skills as well as personal qualities. Organized in teams of eight people, volunteers engage in four to five different missions at diverse organizations over the course of their service year, and have the opportunity to learn about a range of social issues (e.g. exclusion, discrimination, poverty, intergenerational solidarity, and the environment). By using various means of communication in universities, but also in local citizen and sport associations in underserved areas, Marie makes sure that teams mix young people from diverse backgrounds (i.e. privileged and underprivileged, students, low-qualified workers, and minorities). Beyond their work in the field, volunteers dedicate one day a week to group sessions where they reinforce their knowledge on social stakes, share their experiences and work on their professional project (i.e. they set objectives, conduct individual follow-up and search for potential employees after their year of service). The results are outstanding: 94 percent of unemployed volunteers find a job at the end of their service year, or go back to their studies.
Besides creating opportunities for young volunteers, Marie has also constructed the financial and legal framework for the official recognition of volunteers by government. This enables young people to commit themselves for almost a year as volunteers in COs, and be recognized for their work. During the first six years of Unis-Cité’ existence, Marie successfully financed all of her programs relying on private funds, brightly engaging the staff of companies to coach young people, and offering volunteering days as counterparts. In 2000 Marie made a substantial step by obtaining the legal recognition of “volunteer” status. This status makes it possible for youth to receive a financial compensation paid in part by the government as well as access to benefits—mainly health insurance coverage and a contribution to a public retirement pension scheme. In 2010, the creation of the National Civic Service Agency reinforced the financial and legal framework for volunteers by simplifying the administrative procedures to become a volunteer and by giving volunteers the equivalent of university credits for their work. Moreover, the government has budgeted 500M EUR (US$710M) to encourage and fund a critical mass of young people engaged in citizen actions.
While better positioning young people in COs or social departments of local public institutions, Marie realized that the majority of these institutions were not structured to welcome and manage volunteers. To overcome that situation, she dedicates a part of her resources to support these organizations in defining interesting missions and sharing the management of the volunteer teams. Consequently, 77 percent of her partners think that the volunteers’ work is useful and efficient. As the number of volunteers will soon be sufficiently increased by the work of the National Civic Service Agency, Marie recognizes the importance of strengthening organizations’ ability to receive and support volunteers. She is also setting up a for-profit consultancy that will specialize in the management of volunteers, with all profits reinvested in the core not-for profit actions of Unis-Cité.
Finally, Marie has set up national projects on topics where partners can interact, learn, and develop and implement solutions together, assisted by young volunteers. The availability of the volunteer workforce constitutes a great opportunity to develop new solutions and put them into place. Mediaterre, which raises awareness on energy consumption among underserved families, is one the national initiatives led by Unis-Cité and sponsored by the national electricity company and other public actors. Volunteer teams from diverse backgrounds are the best positioned to facilitate the dialogue and therefore are more successful in changing behaviors.
Marie has always considered civil service as a necessary first step in developing youth citizen engagement. The results of her work demonstrate the emergence of a new generation of changemakers: 88 percent of Unis-Cité volunteers report that they better understand society and the complexity of social issues; 83 percent feel they now have the tools to act for society; and 76 percent feel more daring to take initiatives. Based on these results, and benefiting from her leadership in the field, Marie wants to expand her solution to other countries as well as experiment around new ways of engaging youth beyond service projects. The next key step is to encourage social entrepreneurship and support young people in creating their own social ventures, capitalizing on existing organizations’ expertise like Ashoka Youth Venture or Antropia, the social venture incubator created by Marie. From an international perspective, Marie has already participated in the replication of her solution in Burkina Faso, where 900 young people have been engaged as civic service volunteers. She is now thinking of an Africa-wide development strategy, while working on unifying existing European civil service organizations to strengthen the movement and add the entrepreneurial component.