Marie Trellu-Kane
Ashoka Fellow since 2010   |   France

Marie Trellu-Kane

Unis-Cité (Civic Service)
Over the last 15 years, Marie has designed a model to make citizen engagement a normal step in young peoples’ lives and has thus created the infrastructure to help them become social changemakers. As…
Read more
This description of Marie Trellu-Kane's work was prepared when Marie Trellu-Kane was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Over the last 15 years, Marie has designed a model to make citizen engagement a normal step in young peoples’ lives and has thus created the infrastructure to help them become social changemakers. As thousands of young people continue to dedicate periods of their lives full-time to social and environmental organizations, Marie now positions her association as a genuine experimental lab dedicated to invent new ways for youth to commit to society and to create the tools for a new generation of changemakers.

The New Idea

Through Unis-Cité, Marie is the first to encourage and facilitate citizen engagement for all those between 18 and 25-years-old. Convinced that each individual has a role to play in solving social and environmental issues, she has removed financial and cultural barriers by designing and implementing a highly-valued volunteer civic service across France. On a volunteer basis, her programs have allowed thousands of young people to fulfil six to nine month missions within a partner network of 600 social organizations, and thus develop young peoples’ empathy, open-mindedness, and leadership skills. To date, 115,000 persons have directly benefited from the work of the volunteers, and the success of her initiative convinced the French government to create the first Civic Service National Agency to scale-up Marie’s model and foster a citizenship spirit among new generations of young people. Set up in May 2010, this agency officially recognizes and finances social engagement. It works hand in hand with Unis-Cité to actively support and engage at least one youth in ten, in each age group, to become an ambassador of change.

While developing the civic service, Marie has contributed to changing the entire social infrastructure to ensure these new changemakers reinforce the social impact of existing organizations. Efficiency-oriented, Marie supports partner organizations, which welcome young people in defining needs and objectives, structuring volunteering missions and dealing with management, integration, and training of the teams. By doing so, she ensures that on the one hand, young people accomplish useful and fulfilling missions and on the other hand, welcoming organizations benefit from professional, creative, and intrapreneurial volunteers.

Marie has thus successfully created all the conditions to further youth citizenship and promote youth social entrepreneurship. Benefiting from a large database of committed youth, a powerful support from public and private partners, and a national recognition, she now aims at reaching a second tipping point where young people not only understand and participate in social issues but also create their own solutions by starting their own social ventures. Cross-fertilization with existing programs—e.g. Ashoka Youth Venture—is a key component of Marie’s strategy to set up new programs. Marie also works in Africa where she has already brought her expertise to build civic service in Burkina Faso. Observing the lack of existing social organizations there, she will focus directly on social entrepreneurship and partner with local networks to accelerate the implementation of her initiative.

The Problem

Over the past decades, levels of citizenship engagement, individual responsibility and political engagement in France have been decreasing among younger populations: Since 1980 the abstention rate has risen (i.e. it was 70 percent for the ages of 18 to 24 in 2002) and volunteering activities have decreased by 15 percent since the 1980s. These figures underlie the lack of social opportunities, as well as the financial difficulties for youth to engage themselves in society. Facing the non-recognition of citizen engagement by public institutions, universities and employers, only 15 percent of young people become engaged in a social or environmental cause, whereas 70 percent declare they would like to. In the background, this retreat in citizen commitment is correlated with deeper issues like youth unemployment or deterioration of social diversity due to the ending of military service.

At the same time, citizen activities such as volunteering are still sources of economic benefit and creativity for the citizen sector. Time spent volunteering in France equals 820,000 jobs, 13 billion working hours or 16B EUR a year (National Statistics Agency, 2004). Besides, this workforce is an incredible source of innovation and new action for citizen organizations (COs). However, it is a well-known challenge that the management of the volunteer workforce requires human resources that organizations usually do not have. Moreover, volunteers often commit themselves without necessarily having the needed competencies to do the work presented to them. Besides, the gap between old-school social organizations and young people’s spirits does not facilitate the matching between needs and available will.

Culturally, a few young people consider they are part of the solutions, but are not used to creating their own projects. In France, starting initiatives and taking risks are often not recognized and valued—surveys show that half of young people in France dream of becoming public officers in order to benefit from job security. In a world that is changing rapidly, with pressing social issues, there is an urgent need to develop a new generation of changemakers; citizens that can handle social and environmental issues and find creative ways to solve them. This will be achieved by returning a sense of citizen engagement to youth and developing their entrepreneurial spirit.

The Strategy

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.

The Person

At 22, Marie chose not to embrace the traditional career of a business school graduate, provoking the disappointment of her middle-class family who expected her to pursue a classic and lucrative career. After many experiences in the citizen sector such as tutoring children and launching a branch of Les Restos du Cœur, a national CO which provides deprived families with inexpensive food and conducts awareness-raising campaigns on hygiene, vaccination, and AIDS in Africa, she had a key encounter with Lisbeth Shepard who launched the idea of civic service in the U.S. Marie realized that one result of the French welfare system is that people get used to waiting for social solutions from public institutions when a social problem emerges. She thus designed a program to awaken youth and to mobilize them around social issues. In 1994 Marie launched Unis-Cité with two peers from school. In only one year she was managing a CO with six full-time employees and a budget of 1.2M Francs raised from large private companies.

Marie rejects the increasing trend in French society of fatalism, pessimism, and disillusion of young citizens toward political action and citizen commitment. In order to bring back trust in citizen action, Marie believes in the importance of building bridges with private and public actors to spread her model and convince political decision-makers to bid on the potential of youth. Moreover, she wants diversity to become a powerful leverage to both improve the well-being of society and foster youth commitment. Marie’s strong belief in diversity partially stems from her personal experience: Her husband and the father of her two children is Senegalese, and she particularly understands the challenge faced by people with mixed origins. This is why she has given an essential dimension to diversity within Unis-Cité. Marie’s exemplary work in that field led her to join the advisory committee of the National Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunities.

Beyond Unis-Cité, Marie has launched and/or participated in many initiatives to create a stronger citizen sector and promote social entrepreneurship. In 1999 she founded a consultancy firm to professionalize management and organization practices for COs and support big companies in their sponsorship strategy. A pioneer in the academic system, in 2004 Marie co-founded the first graduate program on social entrepreneurship in France, at ESSEC Business School. A few years later, she launched Antropia, the first incubator in France for social ventures.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.