Ambiguous, Affective, and Arduous: Volunteers’ Invisible Work With Young Adults




volunteer work, young adults, invisible work, needs for support, Finland


Mentoring has been regarded as a promising way to reach at-risk youth and to strengthen the protective factors. This article focuses on emotions, reflections, and challenges that adult volunteers face in trying to establish and maintain a friend relationship with young adults in a multicomponent mentor setting in Finland. Based on our participatory observations in volunteering, a focus group discussion with volunteers and facilitators of volunteering, and interviews with young adults we analyze the nature of volunteers’ actions as invisible work as characterized by Devault (1999). We argue that invisible work should be recognized as a significant part of volunteering in a multi-component mentoring setting. The main findings in this particular case are the following: (a) There are limitations in short-term and project-based work in establishing meaningful relationships between young people and the volunteers/staff. (b) The volunteers are not always equipped to address the material and mental health support needs of the young people. (c) The organizational focus aiming to improve the volunteers’ experience does not solve all the problems related to volunteers’ interaction with young adults, such as fragmented and short-term youth services created by neoliberal policies that the young adults struggle with. 

Author Biographies

Jenni Mölkänen, University of Helsinki

Jenni Mölkänen is post-doctoral researcher in the University of Eastern Finland. She is trained as an anthropologist and has conducted research of large-scale environmental conservation efforts, natural resource use, and local perceptions in northeastern Madagascar. She has worked in a multidisciplinary youth project, ALL-YOUTH focusing on young people’s transitions to adulthood and wellbeing in the Sustainability Institute (HELSUS) of the University of Helsinki. 

Päivi Honkatukia, Tampere University

Päivi Honkatukia is a professor of Youth Research at Tampere University in Finland. She is educated as sociologist and has conducted research in the fields of socio-legal studies, youth research and gender studies. Currently she leads research projects focusing on youth participation and inclusion in society, young people’s transitions to adulthood and young people’s negotiations around sexual consent. 


Anttonen, A., & Karsio, O. (2017). Marketization from within: Changing governance of care services. In F. Martinelli, A. Anttonen, & M. Mätzke (Eds.), Social services disrupted changes, challenges and policy implications for Europe in times of austerity (pp. 219–238). Edward Elgar.

Britannica. (n.d.). Friendship. In dictionary. Retrieved December 12, 2020 from

Bryant, C. (2006). Planning and moderating focus group research. In M. V. Angrosino (Ed.), Doing cultural anthropology: Projects for ethnographic data collection (pp. 115–127). Waveland Press.

Cammaerts, B., Bruter, M., Banaji, S., Harrison, S., & Anstead, N. (2016). Youth participation in democratic life: Stories of hope and disillusion. Palgrave Macmillan.

Carsten, J, (1995). The substance of kinship and the heat of the hearth: Feeding, personhood, and relatedness among Malays in Pulau Langkawi. American Ethnologist, 22(2), 223–241.

Daniels, A. K. (1987). Invisible work. Social Problems, 34(5), 403–415.

Davies, B. (2019). Austerity, youth policy and the deconstruction of the youth service in England. Palgrave Macmillan.

Devault, M. L. (1999). Comfort and struggle: Emotion work in family life. The ANNALS of the American Academy of political and Social Science, 561(1), 52–63.

Duguid, F., Mündel, K., & Schugurensky, D. (2013). “Learning from each other”: Volunteers’ learning experiences in housing co-operatives. In F. Duguid, K. Mündel, & D. Schugurensky, (Eds.), Volunteer work, informal learning and social action. (pp. 115–140). Brill Sense.

Eliasoph, N. (2013). Making volunteers: Civic life after welfare's end. Vol. 50. Princeton University Press.

Garringer, M., McQuillin, S., & McDaniel, H. (2017). Examining youth mentoring services across America: Findings from the 2016 national mentoring program survey. MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership.

Grant, S., Maass, S., Vettern, R., Harrington, R., O’Neil, K., McGlaughlin, P., & Good, T. (2020). The impact of volunteering: A multi-state study of 4-H youth development volunteers. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 32–50.

Grossman, J. B., Chan, C. S., Schwartz, S. E., & Rhodes, J. E. (2012). The test of time in school‐based mentoring: The role of relationship duration and re‐matching on academic outcomes. American Journal of Community Psychology, 49 (1-2), 43-54.

Grossman, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30(2), 199–219.

Haski-Leventhal, D., & Bargal, D. (2008). The volunteer stages and transitions model: Organizational socialization of volunteers. Human Relations, 61(1), 67–102.

Haski-Leventhal, D., Hustinx, L., & Handy, F. (2011). What money cannot buy: The distinctive and multidimensional impact of volunteers. Journal of Community Practice, 19(2), 138–158.

Hensley, S. T., Kent, H. C., Broaddus, B. A., Ellison, S., Michael, S. T., & Spero, V. (2020). 4-H volunteer attainment of quality positive youth development practices. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 87–96.

Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles. MDRC.

Higginbotham, B. J., Harris, V. W., & Lee, T. R. (2007). Youth and families with promise: A multi-component youth development program. Journal of Youth Development, 1(3).

Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85 (3), 551–575.

Homan, A. C., Gündemir, S., Buengeler, C., & van Kleef, G. A. (2020). Leading diversity: Towards a theory of functional leadership in diverse teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(10), 1101.

Honkatukia, P., Kallio, J., Lähde, M., & Mölkänen, J. (2020). Omana itsenä osa yhteiskuntaa – Itsenäistyvät nuoret aikuiset kansalaisina [A part of society in one’s own right – Young adults becoming independent as citizens].

Howell, S. (2018). Ethnography. The Cambridge encyclopedia of anthropology.,Participant%2Dobservation,native's%20point%20of%20view%E2%80%9D'

Hyams, M. (2004). Hearing girls’ silences: Thoughts on the politics and practices of a feminist method of group discussion. Gender, Place & Culture, 11(1), 105–119.

Juurus, K. (1992). Pakilan turvatalo tarjoaa suojan nuorelle joka ei voi mennä yöksi kotiin. Lama on viime keväästä lähtien lisännyt perheiden ja nuorten ongelmia runsaasti. Helsingin Sanomat. 3 August, 1992.

Keller, T. E. (2007). Program staff in youth mentoring programs: Qualifications, training, and retention. In J. Rhodes (Ed.), Research in action. MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership.

Keller, T. E., Drew, A. L., Clark-Shim, H., Spencer, R., & Herrera, C. (2020). It’s about time: Staff support contacts and mentor volunteer experiences. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 145–161.

Kiander, J. 2001. 1990-luvun talouskriisi. Suomen Akatemian tutkimusohjelma: Laman opetukset. Suomen 1990-luvun kriisin syyt ja seuraukset [The Economic Crisis of the 1990s. The Academy of Finland’s research program. Reasons, Events and Consequences]. Valtion taloudellinen tutkimuskeskus VATT.

Kok, C. M., Espinoza, D. M., Worker, S. M., Go, C., & Miller, J. C. (2020). Identification of priority skill areas for volunteer professional development. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 51–67.

Kupersmidt, J. B., Stump, K. N., Stetler, R.L., & Rhodes, J. E. (2017). Mentoring program practices as predictors of match longevity. Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 630–645.

Lähde, M. and J., Mölkänen 2021. The quest for independent living in Finland: Youth shelter as a critical moment in young adults’ life courses. In F. Stammler & R. Toivanen (Eds.), Quest for good life in the Arctic: Youth trajectories on well-being and place-making (pp. 170–195). Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

Lavee, E., & Kaplan, A. (2022). Invisible work at work and the reproduction of gendered social service organizations. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(5), 1463–1480.

Macduff, N. (2005). Societal changes and the rise of the episodic volunteer. Emerging areas of volunteering, 1(2), 49–61.

Macduff, N., Netting F. E., & O’Connor, M. K. (2009). Multiple ways of coordinating volunteers with differing styles of service. Journal of Community Practice, 17, 400–423.

Malinen, S., & Harju, L. (2017). Volunteer engagement: Exploring the distinction between job and organizational engagement. Voluntas, 28, 69–89.

Marjovuo, A. (2014). Vapaaehtoistyön ytimessä. Järjestömuotoinen vapaaehtoistyö sosiaalisten representaatioiden näkökulmasta. Sosiaalitieteiden laitoksen julkaisuja. Unigrafia. Helsinki.

Moilanen, J. (2015). Tutkimus lastensuojelun tukihenkilötoiminnan muutoksista: Relationaalinen näkökulma [A study on changes to the practice of using support persons in child welfare – A relational point of view]. Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research, (533).

Nylund, M. (2000). Varieties of mutual support and voluntary action - A study of Finnish self-help groups and volunteers. Finnish Federation for Social Welfare and Health.

Plourde, K. F., Nanda, G., Healy, E., Kibwola, D., Mutonyi, P., Ochwo, M., Okello, F., & Cunningham, J. (2021). Implementation of Anyaka Makwiri: A multicomponent mentoring program for adolescent girls and young women in Uganda. Journal of Youth Development, 16(2–3), 278–286.

Red Cross (2021). Volunteering and intergenerational connections to promote active ageing.

Restler, S., & Glant, L. (2020). All hands on deck: Building a sustainable volunteer program. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 162–173.

Rochester, C. (1999). One size does not fit all: Four models of involving volunteers in voluntary organizations. Voluntary Action, 1(2), 47–59.

Rochester, C., Ellis Paine, A., & Howlett, S. (with Zimmeck, M.). (2010). Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan.

Saari, J., & Pessi, A. B. (2011). Auttaminen kilpailukyky-yhteiskunnassa. In Hyvien ihmisten maa: Auttaminen kilpailukyky-yhteiskunnassa (pp. 15-41). [Land of good people: Helping hands in a competitive society]. Diakonia-ammattikorkeakoulu.

Sipola, Merja (2019). Vapaaehtoistoimintaan osallistuminen suomalaisessa yhteiskunnassa [Master’s thesis, University of Helsinki].

Spencer, R., Gowdy, G., Drew, A. L., McCormack, M., & Keller, T. E. (2020). It takes a village to break up a match: A systemic analysis of endings in formal youth mentoring relationships. Child & Youth Care Forum, 49(1), 97–120.

Stoller, P. (1989). The taste of ethnographic things: The senses in anthropology. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stukas, A. A., Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (2014). Mentor recruitment and retention. In D. L. Dubois, & M. K. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring, (2nd ed., pp. 397–410). Sage.

Watt, L. (2017). “Her life rests on your shoulders”: Doing worry as emotion work in the care of children with diabetes. Global Qualitative Nursing Research.

Worker, S. M., Espinoza, D. M., Kok, C. M., Go, C., & Miller, J. C. (2020). Volunteer outcomes and impact: The contributions and consequences of volunteering in 4-H. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 6–31.

Yeung, A. B. 2004. The octagon model of volunteer motivation: Results of a phenomenological analysis. Voluntas. International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 15, 21–47.






Feature Articles