Youth perspectives of volunteering: Debating the win-win

Last year’s cross-party launch of the Step Up to Serve campaign demonstrated the huge value placed on young people engaging in their communities. As part of this, work by IVR, the Young Foundation and Generation Change explored how we measure and understand the ‘double benefit’, in which both the young person and the community gain. But is there really a win-win scenario at play here? Or do we end up prioritising certain groups of people at the expense of others?

Last Friday, with the ESRC and Northumbria University, IVR hosted an event exploring the experience of young volunteers in an attempt to unpick these questions and others. Held in Newcastle, it was the first of six new seminars exploring volunteering at different stages of people’s lives. Charlotte Hill, Step Up to Serve’s new CEO, chaired the event and we saw presentations from Clare Holdsworth of Keele University and Sarah Mills from Loughborough University, both of whom have been carrying out leading work into different aspects of youth volunteering. Lindsay Murray from Gateshead Council provided the local policy perspective.

But without wishing to overshadow these speakers, perhaps the most compelling case for volunteering amongst younger people was provided by two members of Gateshead Youth Assembly. Sarah, whilst apologising that she was at risk of sounding a little clichéd, was clear that ‘volunteering had turned her life around’ and that she was ‘living proof that it works’. Similarly Jess clearly articulately how her experience of volunteering had shown that it created new communities as well as strengthened existing ones.

The debate that followed was wide ranging (see the Storify of the Twitter conversation to get some sense of what we talked about) but one thing that stood out for me was a discussion initiated by Clare Holdsworth. While she acknowledged the ‘win-win’ nature of youth volunteering, she described how she felt debate had become dominated by how the volunteer gains, at the expense of wider society. Clare was not suggesting that volunteers such as Sarah and Jess did not gain from their experience, but she was calling for more attention to be focused on how the community and beneficiaries experience impact – bringing social justice back into the picture.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of one or the other. We need to look at both the volunteer and the community, whether it be communities of place or of interest. But the increasing attention on how the young person experiences impact does raise important questions. Is there a risk of creating an environment in which young people are disadvantaged if they don’t volunteer? Has too much attention been focused on the employability benefits of volunteering for young people and is it seen as a panacea for all of their social challenges? Or are volunteering schemes which are part of school and university courses a potential threat to the freewill aspect of engagement? In thirty minutes’ discussion on a warm Friday afternoon we clearly weren’t able to answer these questions, but as the environment in which youth volunteering exists continues to evolve, we need to make sure we’re still asking these sorts of questions.


The presentations and speaker recordings from the seminar will shortly be available to download from the ESRC’s website. You can also read one of Clare Holdsworth’s articles on reproductive vs. deconstructive volunteering.

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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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