News and Comment

Why no young person should be excluded from the opportunity to volunteer

Monday 25 February 2013


Recent figures suggest there has been a resurgence in volunteering, with a 9 percentage point increase in regular volunteering in the UK. Given the benefits volunteering can bring to individuals and to communities, and the amount recently invested in volunteering and social action schemes, these are heartening figures at a time of otherwise bleak social and economic news.

The National Citizen Service (NCS) is one government-backed volunteering scheme. The programme brings together young people aged 15-17 to mix and work in teams with others from different backgrounds, to build communication and leadership skills and to learn more about their communities by designing social action projects which they deliver through volunteered hours. It is anticipated that around 34,000 young people will have taken part in the programme in 2011/12.

With the opportunity to gain new hard and soft skills, and by building confidence in doing so, volunteering can help young people improve the quality of their day to day lives and inform a brighter, more positive future. The particular benefit depends on the starting point of the individual: for some young people volunteering can be about setting themselves apart from others on a CV or UCAS form whereas for others it can be a lifeline. Nonetheless a well supported and meaningful volunteering placement can be the spark to effect change, whatever the relative definition of success.

Our evaluation of the 2011 NCS pilot revealed several ways in which the programme has positive impacts on the young people that took part. When young people define what matters most to them about their community – and then are supported to act on this concern – they talk about their sense of pride that they are able to make a difference. We found that for young people in particularly disadvantaged areas, this sense of being listened to and efficacy are hugely powerful drivers of self esteem.

The other great thing about volunteering is that by and large it is reciprocal: it is not just the volunteers that benefit from the process of volunteering but that there is an end result of volunteering too which exists once volunteering has finished. Through NCS social action projects there are tidy gardens, renovated buildings and lots of goodwill and happy memories. This ‘virtuous circle’ effect means that the ripple effect of volunteering spreads from the individual volunteer and into the wider community and back again.

We have heard lots of examples through NCS of young people talking about how other members of the community – residents whose gardens have been tided, older people who have had parties thrown for them and shopkeepers who have donated items for raffles – have expressed (often in surprise) how nice it is that young people are helping out. The real crime is that such negative perceptions of young people exist in the first place, but NCS has gone some way to address this locally, suggesting an increase in community spirit and sense of local belonging, also reflected in the recent figures.

At a time of record levels of youth unemployment it is even more important that volunteering placement schemes like NCS ensure that all young people have access to opportunities to take part. And to this point there is an irony: as NCS raises its profile and becomes more popular, providers might look less to target ‘hard to reach’ young people if their places are quickly snapped up by those with ‘sharp elbows’.

This is not to say that young people joining NCS for CV points are taking part for the wrong reasons but that this could exclude the young people that can potentially make the biggest journey through the programme, both in terms of personal development but also in terms of connecting positively to their local communities. Ensuring a social mix at the heart of the programme is crucial to its success in more ways than one.