How does volunteering link to paid work?

Professor Irene Hardill AcSS is professor of public policy and director of the Northumbria Centre for Citizenship and Civil Society, Northumbria University. She is also a member of the Training and Skills Committee of the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Her particular expertise is in volunteering and the voluntary and community sector, demography and ageing, and knowledge exchange and user engagement. 

Policy context and history

The current government has placed a considerable amount of emphasis on the positive links between unpaid voluntary work, employability and paid work. Active citizenship forms part of the National Curriculum for schools and the National Citizen Service programme seeks to, amongst other things, improve the employability of young people. But we have also seen this from previous governments. Under New Labour volunteering was seen as a vehicle for solving social problems associated with worklessness via such schemes as the New Deal projects for young people, older adults or single mothers, or Sure Start projects that offered training for volunteering and encouraged parents to use this as a route into employment.

These schemes frequently seek to get people connected, or reconnected to the labour market, sometimes following significant moments or periods of ‘transition’ in their lives. A recent report by the Third Sector Research Centre does, however, question the robustness of the evidence to prove this.

What should we be telling young people?

As an employee in higher education I am very much aware that now more than ever these links are being forcefully made to undergraduates.  Most job application forms now have a section where applicants can describe the voluntary work they undertake, in addition to the conventional questions exploring one’s job history. At Northumbria, like other universities, our Student’s Union has a team of people who promote volunteering opportunities, and universities use graduate employability statistics in their publicity material.

What the research tells us

I attended a fascinating policy seminar co-convened by IVR, ESRC and Northumbria University at NCVO’s offices in London which focused on the ways in which volunteering links to paid work. This was the second of six new seminars exploring volunteering at different stages of people’s lives and saw a range of presentations from academics and organisations involving and supporting volunteers.

Pauline Leonard (Southampton University) and Rachel Wilde (Institute of Education) highlighted research they have undertaken on the impact of attending a short course that offers volunteering tasters to a diverse group of young people. Joanne Cook (Hull University) and Jon Burchell (Sheffield University) presented findings from a study of employee-supported volunteering; and Veronique Jochum of NCVO reported on a large study supported by Big Lottery that focused on the role volunteering plays over a person’s lifecourse.  She highlighted how volunteering can be used to help people make life adjustments at ‘transition points’ in their lives; to find a new job; to change career direction; to overcome the loss of a loved one; to find a new purpose with retirement from paid work.

But for me, the presentation by Michelle Martin of Greenwich Volunteer Centre really stood out. Michelle described a programme of work developed with Big Lottery funding at Greenwich Volunteer Centre. The programme offered a supportive environment combining skills development and volunteering within the Centre for unwaged adults. Participants recorded increased levels of confidence, reduced social isolation; over half went on to secure paid work, and others moved onto further skills development courses. More information of their programmes can be found from Michelle’s presentation.

The debate that followed was wide ranging (see the Storify of the Twitter conversation to get a sense of what we talked about). I wish to pick up one theme that emerged in the debate.

The risk of excluding potential volunteers

I was really happy to hear people talking about how volunteering can and does help – not just young – people secure paid work, including changing career direction following key ‘transition points’ in people’s lives, such childbirth/childrearing or redundancy. But by emphasising the link between volunteering and employability, we run the risk of reducing the pool of potential volunteers.

The current government’s interest in understanding and promoting the employability benefits of volunteering is understandable as it can make a massive difference to people’s lives. But if we shape all policy around this outcome-based vision of volunteering – which can appear to only distinguish between being employed and unemployed – we risk ignoring a significant section of society. Many people, for reasons of age, disability or care responsibilities, may never be able to enter the labour market. But for huge numbers of these people, volunteering can be a meaningful form of engagement. It can be a valuable end in its own right. Understanding volunteering as only being training for the labour market will risk excluding and discouraging those who are not able to undertake paid work. We need the government – and the sector – to recognise the full range of benefits of volunteering.

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