News and Comment

Young People Doing Good Things

Tuesday 8 July 2014


That’s the simple and effective slogan of youth volunteering charity vInspired, and working with vInspired as their evaluation partner has got us thinking about this issue. Young people’s civic engagement has been framed and reframed under various guises in UK policy over the past decades. Recently the focus has shifted from accusatory stances characterising the young as ‘apathetic’ or ‘anti-social’, to harnessing the energy of and recognising the power young people have to shape their own destiny and contribute to communities. Our work has brought us into contact with many fantastically engaged and giving young people including the GLA’s peer outreach team, young volunteers at London Tigers, and students at Aston Manor academy, to name but a few.

There have recently been a number of national campaigns and initiatives that seek to encourage more young people to get involved in volunteering and incorporate the voices and choices of young people into social projects, such as Step Up To Serve and the Government’s Youth Social Action Fund. Nevertheless, important questions remain, including: how can such programmes engage young people from hard-to-reach backgrounds? What kind of impact does volunteering have on these young people? And what are the barriers which prevent young people from volunteering at all?

What stops young people getting involved?

In answer to this last point evidence suggests that a change in attitudes towards and perceptions of young people might help. A new Demos report linked false negative stereotyping to adverse effects on young people’s self-esteem and employment opportunities. The report reveals that 80% of the young people surveyed believe their generation is more concerned with social issues than previous generations.[1]  A failure to acknowledge the will to participate of many young people presents the first barrier to reaching out to groups.

Encouraging young people to volunteer with existing traditional and more formal volunteering opportunities may not necessarily work. Mason argues that these traditional opportunities are frequently structured according to the concerns of the adult rather than young people.[2] Approaching civic engagement from an adult perspective may not accurately reflect the realities of young people. Jonathan Birdwell, the Head of the Citizenship Programme at Demos, stated that “Teenagers are motivated to make a difference in their community but the approach they take is radically different to previous generations. Teenagers do not rely on politicians and others to solve the world’s problems, but instead roll up their sleeves and power up their laptop and smartphone to get things done through crowd sourced collaboration.”[3]

Another hurdle is negative perceptions of volunteering itself. A YVC evaluation exploring the perceptions of young people before and after volunteering stints, found that many young people did not perceive volunteering to be fun or worthwhile prior to participating. Perceptions were changed following voluntary work, with over 90% of young people reporting improvements to self-esteem, team work, self-confidence and awareness of others.[4]  The current consensus is that there are positive impacts for young people themselves and their communities to be gained from volunteering.  The challenge now is how to engage young people.

Volunteering opportunities, particularly to reach groups on the margins, need to be more youth-centred and accessible. Carolynne Mason believes that volunteering should be linked ‘voice’ and empowerment, and to achieve this it is crucial that young people are involved in decision making processes:  ‘A culture of participation can have a positive impact on young people’s sense of ‘self-efficacy’ which in turn had been found to be a key factor in influencing their levels of civic engagement.’[5]

Whilst reports have explored the impact of volunteering on the general youth population, there is apaucity of evidence pertaining to socially disadvantaged groups.[6]  There is an urgent need for more evidence about the outcome of young people’s involvement in volunteering through effective evaluation of programmes that prioritise young people’s own perspectives.

A youth-led approach

We’re currently evaluating several of vInspired’s youth volunteering programmes, including NCS cashpoint. This programme offers grants of up to £500, along with support and advice from the vInspired team, for young people aged 14-25 to create the change they want to see in their communities. They have an opportunity to use their own creativity and passion to provide valuable, sustainable community based services based on their own ideas. A high proportion of those involved come from the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK.[7]

Cashpoint is unique as it begins from the starting point that young people want to get involved in helping and improving their communities. Subsequent opportunities are completely shaped and owned by young people themselves, encouraging them to become social agents who can lead change on issues they care about. A previous evaluation revealed that participants developed a variety of skills through the programme, around project planning, budget management, leadership, fundraising and team-work. Furthermore, volunteers were confident that involvement had enhanced their employment prospects.[8]

The evaluations of NCS cashpoint and two of vInspired’s other programmes, Talent and Team v, give us a great opportunity to share learning and examples of good practice at a time when funding is being made available to enable young people to volunteer. We look forward to sharing our findings next year.

[2] Carolynne Mason (2013) ‘The civic engagement of young people living in areas of socio-economic disadvantage’ Chapter 7 in Debated in Citizenship Education eds James Author and Hilary Cremin.
[5]Carolynne Mason (2013) ‘The civic engagement of young people living in areas of socio-economic disadvantage’ Chapter 7 in Debated in Citizenship Education eds James Author and Hilary Cremin.
[6] ibid