Step up to Serve: A real chance to support young people’s volunteering

Today sees the launch of a new campaign to encourage youth social action. Led by the indomitable Julia Cleverdon and Amanda Jordan, the Campaign for Youth Social Action, or Step up to Serve as it is now to be known, aims to engage a new generation of young people aged 10 to 20 in the service of others. Another new campaign, I hear you say. We need that like the proverbial hole in the head. Well, while I would usually be the first to agree, there is a chance that this time things might be different.

The volunteering world has been plagued in recent years by a virulent strain of ‘initiativitis’. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with shadow charity ministers who, while in opposition, have pledged to stamp out ‘vanity projects’, only to succumb to the allure of the ‘shiny new’ upon assuming office. So we have had the nonsense of perfectly good and effective organisations being de-funded in place of new groups doing virtually identical things, with all the waste of intellectual and human capital that this entails.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing against innovation and new thinking; quite the contrary. The volunteering movement after all is built on the desire of individuals to experiment and change things for the better. What was it that the great social anthropologist Margaret Mead said? Something along the lines of never doubting the capacity of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world, as in the end it is the only thing that ever has. Throughout our history most important social change – votes for women, the abolition of slavery, the response to the HIV/Aids pandemic – has been brought about by individuals, by volunteers, who have been prepared to take risks and push boundaries.

Change and experimentation is the lifeblood of our movement and should be cherished at all costs. But so too should continuity and experience, knowledge and relationships, those rather under-rated and out-moded virtues that help make things happen. We need the systems and institutions at local and national level which understand how volunteering works and which have the contacts and networks to support and nurture the fledgling ambitions and aspirations of the social entrepreneur. And it is in this sense that my heart sinks when I hear of the closure of another volunteer centre or well-regarded volunteering programme, followed the next day by government support for yet another new initiative which looks uncannily similar to the ones which have just gone under.

So why should this new campaign be any different? Well, for two reasons I believe. First, the campaign was launched this week with full cross-party endorsement, which gives hope that whatever the outcome of the next election, government support will be retained. Julia and Amanda should be applauded in pulling off this coup, helped in no small part by the strong and committed leadership provided by The Prince of Wales. Perhaps, in the sphere of youth social action at least, we might be seeing the beginning of the end of the vanity project. Second, we have been promised that Step up to Serve has no ambitions to morph into another new delivery body (yes, yes, we’ve heard that many times before, I know) but will remain a tightly-focused campaigning force, with a finite lifespan, working to bring the private, educational and voluntary sectors together to make the change in social action for young people we all hope to see. Early days of course, but there is enough which feels different about this venture to encourage NCVO to give it its wholehearted backing and to join others in pledging our support. I would urge you also to take a good look and see what you can do to help.

In support of the Campaign for Youth Social Action NCVO is pledging:

To develop good practice guidance that will support organisations to engage young people. The guidance will provide practical tips, bringing together existing good practice and drawing on the learning from successful projects and approaches with the overall aim of reducing barriers and overcoming challenges to engaging young people in social action.

To pilot greater opportunities for young people to engage their talents and energies in volunteering relationships and activities with older residents in care homes, through the Volunteering in Care Homes Project, funded by the Department of Health. We shall disseminate the evidence of their contributions to enhancing the residents’ quality of life and celebrate these achievements.

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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.

6 Responses to Step up to Serve: A real chance to support young people’s volunteering

  1. Sally says:

    As a Volunteer Centre which has supported young people into volunteering and social action since 1996, I feel let down by my national bodies, if they are willing to support initiatives such as this (and don’t get me wrong – I’m all for getting more young people into volunteering and social action) but without stating catagorically that, for this to be successful, there needs to be funding on the table!! We need to take the learning from previous Government funded initiatives – MAD, MV, V-INVOLVED – and support those agencies which work at grass roots level & have the contacts, the experience, the skills and the knowledge to really make sure that young people have positive reseults from their involvement in volunteering and social action

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Absolutely, funding is crucial and it was the point I was trying to make that this time round things just might be different as the idea is not to set up a new delivery body but work through existing providers. But for this to work these delivery agencies will require funding to develop meaningful and well managed opportunities. NCVO has put a bid in to the new Cabinet Office fund which if successful would see us working with half a dozen volunteer centres to scale up the excellent work they are doing to engage young people. And we will keep making the case until we are blue in the face that volunteering is not free and requires investment to flourish!

  2. Great idea but we are seriously limited in how many young people we can place due to insurance issues. Charity insurers (in our experience) just will not cover young people as a rule. I have managed Wokingham Volunteer Centre for 10 years and this problem has only got worse in that time. We have around 150 charities on our books. Less than 10 will take under 16’s and only a few more will take under 18’s. Until this sorted out every initiative in the book will fail, despite the high level support.

  3. John Ramsey says:

    This is not a criticism aimed at any specific programme but rather a reflection that over the last eight years or so any age-specific volunteering programme has focussed almost exclusively on younger people.

    What that fails to recognise are three clear national drivers for encouraging and engaging more older people to volunteer:
    – the short and medium-term demographic forecasts show it is the cohort of older people that will grow the most.
    – this cohort are the ‘baby-boomers’ who have different needs, wants and motivations for volunteering than their preceding generation.
    – the health and social care that older people need is a ticking time-bomb, yet there is extensive evidence that shows how volunteering gives older volunteers a huge range of health benefits.

    So yes, let’s support more younger people to volunteer but not at the exclusion of older people.

  4. In 2002 I worked in the team of the short-lived Giving Campaign… aiming to improve the culture of giving in the UK. Thankfully some projects that were started then are now being used in the new Step Up to Serve campaign are still going, and going strong. I suppose in the best of all worlds, we and all other similar initiatives will survive as long as we’re being proven to work.

    In my view one redeeming quality of the new campaign compared to past versions (and I sat on the commission that set up V-Inspired with Justin!) is that nothing new needs to be created in order to make it work. Rather, it imagines that the projects that are currently out there will begin to work together more effectively and so multiply their effect accordingly.

    That belief may also turn out to be a founding myth… No one’s proved it to be the problem, but in an era when there’s no money going into new things unless you’re the National Citizens Service, then it’s the only permissible problem.

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