Employable, entrepreneurial, empowered? How the voluntary sector supports youth citizenship

Kristina Diprose is a PhD candidate at the School of Geography, University of Leeds, and works as a Research Consultant with York Consulting. She won the prize for best paper in the new researchers’ session at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in 2013.

Citizenship education cannot be confined to the classroom – the best way to learn about participating in society is to participate. Voluntary action is one of the major ways that young people learn about citizenship from experience, both in projects attached to schools and out in the community. The voluntary sector is poised as a significant civic intermediary, but what kind of citizenship – and what kinds of citizens – is it encouraging?

My PhD research addressed these questions with two case studies of national voluntary sector youth projects:

  • an active citizenship provider linked to post-16 education and the National Citizen Service scheme
  • a national campaigning initiative run entirely by and for young volunteers, which supported national and international policy training and lobbying.

Youth participation in voluntary sector action has been linked to various positive outcomes, including improved team working ability, community engagement, skills development, confidence and bridges to academic and civic institutions.

There is also evidence to suggest that it is increasingly seen as ‘something for the CV’ by project providers and by young people. This can make some projects competitive, emphasising what young people personally stand to gain from activities which are meant to be for the public good. How the voluntary sector manages cross-purposes can affect the breadth and depth of young people’s engagement in civic action.

Engage and empower

Both case studies aimed to ‘engage’ and ‘empower’ young people. Ethnographic research with project staff, volunteers and young members provided an in-depth overview of the meanings and practices they associated with these terms.

The research identified three interdependent voluntary sector activities that support empowering citizenship experiences:

  • amplifying
  • bridging
  • capacity building.

It highlighted the importance of forums that support young people speaking for themselves and from solidarity with others, connect them with communities, organisations and decision-makers and develop their capabilities as competent and critically reflective citizens.

The voluntary sector’s strength was in providing experiential citizenship opportunities that enabled young people to learn by doing, treating them as citizens now while also developing confidence and capacity for future participation.


The research also underlined the pervasiveness of employability in funder expectations, marketing, and young people’s motivation. In some schools, citizenship was seen by teachers as an extracurricular add-on for academic achievers. Enterprise activities with corporate sponsors narrowed the focus of some projects towards marketable ideas such as slogan t-shirt sales and self-help websites. Recruitment emphasised how participation could improve CVs, UCAS applications and employment prospects. Young people’s perceptions of benefits on exit included:

  • project management and public speaking skills
  • professional networks
  • transitions to professional work in the sector (in the second case).

Work towards youth employment and empowerment outcomes coexisted – albeit uneasily – through a shared focus on personal development. These cross-purposes illustrate the intersection of what Lynn Staeheli and colleagues term ‘active’ and ‘activist’ citizenship. The former reflects government policy priorities concerned with cultivating responsible, economically productive citizens. The latter encompasses the more expansive remit of autonomous community action, which can include developing skills for social change and politicisation.

Employability can also be considered a resilience strategy borne from austerity that exemplifies ‘entrepreneurial’ citizenship through self-regulation and risk management, both for young people and the sector. It can be empowering to the extent that it wards off fatalistic responses to social change by retooling and re-skilling. The risk for the sector – and for the young people that it supports – is that this emphasises self-development rather that social transformation as the primary purpose of citizenship.

Lessons learned

In the time-honoured tradition of PhD projects, my research raises more questions than it answers. It shows that the voluntary sector is a valued and effective civic intermediary, achieving tangible outcomes for young people with a citizenship-as-practice approach. Yet it also identifies barriers to participation that cause differential access to citizenship opportunities, including:

  • geographical reach
  • the influence of school gatekeepers
  • competitive selection processes.

For me, the main learning from this project has been the importance of taking a relational view of the voluntary sector’s civic intermediary work, recognising that – like citizenship itself – it can support more than one purpose.

Read the full prize winning paper

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