Welcoming the Campaign for Youth Social Action

Getting young people actively involved in their communities brings a whole range of benefits not just to the community but to the young people themselves. Reams of evidence shows that young people involved in social action become more confident, more skilful, and more politically engaged.

That is why I was pleased to see the launch last month of the Campaign for Youth Social Action. We’re not short of volunteering programmes. We have a thriving volunteering movement which provides a great number of volunteering opportunities of all shapes and sizes. What is required, and what this campaign promises to give, is better coordination to ensure that the opportunities link together so it is simple and natural for young people to move from one to another to ensure a continuous experience of social action. This consistent participation during the teenage years will provide the momentum for a life-long commitment to volunteering.

What is particularly important about this new initiative is its independence from political parties and from government. At NCVO’s Evolve 2013 conference last month we heard Jon Cruddas MP, Labour’s policy review coordinator, say that he regretted Labour ‘losing’ the language associated with the Big Society to his opponents. Yet the Big Society brand has become an embarrassment to the Conservatives, despite the laudable aim of seeking to increase social action. This is the problem of politicisation. This is why the independence of the new Campaign is so important. Avoiding the risks of association with political parties or government, it will come under the auspices of the Prince of Wales. This is of course a natural fit: the Prince and his charities have an excellent record of supporting young people. Rather than being seen as a minister’s pet project, or a political marketing tool, the Campaign will have the authority and the credibility to pull together the many different organisations and people whose support and effort will be crucial if it is to make progress towards its ambitious goal of doubling the level of youth social action by 2020.

It’s worth looking overseas to see how this depoliticisation can work. The continued success of the USA’s Americorps volunteering programme is in no small part a result of its cross-party support. Americorps is an interesting creature. It is simultaneously a large government programme to effect social change, but also relatively low-cost, relying on individual action and with the side-effect of instilling  service and responsibility in young people. It has something for both ends of the political spectrum, and it has the support of all.

Volunteering among young people in Britain already stands at a respectable level, in-line with many international comparators. We have a substantial voluntary and community sector filled with volunteering expertise, and we have much of the groundwork laid in programmes such as vinspired and the National Citizen Service.

The first task of the Campaign, rightly, is to build and scrutinise the evidence of what works. It is essential that future work reaches not only those who might well volunteer anyway, but those who are currently furthest from volunteering. It is the most excluded who stand to gain the most from the increased skills and confidence that youth social action can deliver. This is achievable. In France, the Service Civique, created by Nicolas Sarkozy and still in its infancy, has in some regions attracted its participants predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds. And some of the emerging findings from the National Citizens Service are encouraging in terms of the mix of young people taking part, although there remains much work to do.

I hope that the volunteering movement will put its full support behind the Campaign, just as I hope that business and education will embrace it. By working together we can inspire a new generation of young people to volunteer and to help not only their community but themselves too.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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