Youth volunteering – do we need a new focus?

matthew-linningMatthew Linning is strategic development manager at Volunteer Scotland.


I recently gave a talk on youth volunteering in Scotland which stimulated an animated discussion about how scarce public money is applied to support youth volunteering. In particular, should we be concentrating more of our effort on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who can benefit from volunteering the most?

The advantaged majority

The reality is that volunteering participation among young people is actually very healthy. In Scotland, 45% of school children aged 11-18 volunteer at least once a year – which is significantly higher than the Scottish adult average of 27% (Young People in Scotland Survey, 2014; Scottish Household Survey, 2015).

Why is this? I believe the following factors are important:

  • The ‘push factor’ – the influence of parents, teachers and friends who encourage young people to volunteer.
  • The ‘pull factors’ – the self-interest of pupils and students to gain valuable experience to help build their CVs and support their future careers.
  • Awards and bespoke support – for example the Saltire Awards, Duke of Edinburgh Award and Project Scotland.

This is excellent news – we all believe in the benefits of youth volunteering – it is a ‘good thing’. The evidence also demonstrates how focused and multi-layered support, underpinned by a supportive government policy and funding, can support an increase in youth volunteering – up from 33% participation in 2009 to 45% in 2014. However, what these summary statistics disguise is the serious problem facing the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.

The disadvantaged minority


Scotland’s school children’s volunteering rate declines from 56% in the least deprived areas to 39% in the most deprived areas. Bad though this decline is, it is likely to be much worse for school children playing truant and those young people not in education, employment or training (NEET). We don’t have volunteering data for these excluded groups, but from our analysis of the Scottish Household Survey we know that the volunteering rate for those aged 16-24 in Scotland’s most deprived areas is only 20%. It is not unrealistic to expect an even lower figure for the 16-18 year old NEET group.

Why is volunteering unattractive to our disadvantaged and excluded young people in Scotland? Drawing upon PhD research exploring youth volunteering in deprived areas of Glasgow a range of barriers have been identified which help explain why volunteering is so much lower in areas of deprivation.

  • The cost of volunteering – travel expenses are often not covered, which is particularly onerous for young people in low income families.
  • Young people’s lack of confidence to enter new and unfamiliar settings – experience of childhood poverty has been found to undermine young people’s confidence.
  • Their lack of social networks – which means that young people are not asked to volunteer. If your parents don’t volunteer, nor your friends and you are poorly connected then the probability of you volunteering is that much lower.
  • Adverse image of volunteering – it is not ‘cool’ to be seen to be volunteering, particularly for males who wish to reinforce their masculine identity.
  • Other people’s attitudes – for example, the disabled, ex-offenders and those from ethnic minorities have reported being apprehensive about seeking volunteering opportunities due to fear of discrimination.

A new focus?

The irony is that the young people who have the most to gain from volunteering are the least likely to engage in it.

Providing a volunteering opportunity to a disadvantaged young person can have a disproportionately high impact. This reflects the fact that the marginal benefit from volunteering can be so great compared to a young person from a more affluent area. Young people living in deprived areas are at greater risk of experiencing a range of social problems such as ill-health, addiction, violence, low educational attainment and poor employment prospects. Volunteering can be a critical stepping stone in helping a young person break out of this negative spiral, through gaining confidence, developing their social networks, engaging in training and hopefully securing employment.

But how do we achieve this? The challenges in engaging excluded young people are significant and can be costly. For example, additional volunteer management time and equipment is often required to engage and sustain volunteering amongst the most disadvantaged.  However, the returns to the individual can be life-changing. Should we increase volunteering support for our most disadvantaged young people? If ‘yes’ this is likely to require a shift in focus from the ‘advantaged majority’ to the ‘disadvantaged minority’ – a policy change which is not without its own risks.


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