Engaging young people through volunteering

This lunchtime I gave a speech about volunteering to one of the fringe meetings at our Bournemouth party conference:

When I was younger – much younger! – and at school, I took part in a volunteering scheme to call on older people – whether they wanted me to or not!

Subsequently, I worked on a hospital radio station and did programs from the wards, and then was a volunteer at a local hospital giving out menus – but really spending time with patients undergoing rough treatment and holding their hands if they didn’t have family – and sometimes sitting with them while they died.

Deep in me it instilled not only the benefits being engaged in positive activities – but a life-long memory of not just how good it was for the recipients – but how it made me feel too.

So I’m glad that we’re having a discussion about how positive volunteering can be for young people, and how it can fit into the wider emphasis on education and skills.

Young people have a lot of bad notices thrown at them – condemned in the media almost daily, criminalised by our justice system and often let down by an education system that so often sees young people as exam statistics fodder rather than as human beings. And all that is without even getting started on the peer pressures of commercial acquisition.

But look at many volunteering organisations, and you see young people bounding in energy, enthusiasm and altruism. More than that though, I believe volunteering is so important it should be at the centre of local communities because it helps to empower young people.

Volunteering can play a large part in building cohesive communities so that young people feel a valued part of them – and hence take part in them – rather than them feeling that they are out on a limb and their community’s biggest inconvenience.

They can bring their enthusiasm, creativity and imagination when they are engaged in constructive, productive volunteering projects, and this can have a rejuvenating effect on local communities, as well as bringing a whole host of benefits to the young people that take part.

For example, in Nottingham, when it came to revamping the 70 year old, unattractive, concrete Market Square in the centre of the city, the council made sure that young people were involved in all stages of the process for selecting a winning design.

And volunteering can be an education in itself. It can provide young people with a whole range of skills that not only increase their employability, but also equip them to deal with the challenges they will inevitably face in life – leadership, teamwork and prioritising tasks.

Taking part in more specific projects can also equip young people with skills that are directly related to employment, such as design skills from producing a magazine to a catering qualification from volunteering at a kitchen for the homeless.

For those young people who succeed in formal education this is a great way for them to pick up all those transferable skills that employers constantly talk about and complain that nobody has! In a crowded labour market it also gives them a distinct advantage over their peers who have no experience outside of academia, and therefore helps employers to choose the best candidates for their vacancies.

Another advantage, which I think is often overlooked, is that volunteering develops young people’s confidence and maturity so that they feel able to face the challenges of formal education head on, and are often capable of making much more intellectual contributions than if they had not been volunteers.

But volunteering can also have a profound effect on those young people who are let down by formal education. It gives those young people a second chance at developing their potential in a way that our formal education system sadly doesn’t allow.

It’s an alternative way to earn recognised qualifications, for young people to build their confidence and start believing in themselves again, even if formal education has left them feeling worthless and undervalued.

Volunteering can be an innovative way of learning and by getting so involved in a project where they feel valued and where they think that they’re making a positive contribution, they don’t realise how many skills they’ve learnt or how much they’ve developed whilst taking part.

Of course – we need to get much better at selling volunteering. Volunteering has had a bit of a bad reputation in the past as it’s been seen as nothing more than free labour, and people think that they may well end up just on tea duty! But it’s nothing like that any more. It’s so much – so much more engaging, involving and adventurous and rewarding and complicated.

With volunteering being so great, the obvious question is: how to we encourage more? We need to encourage stakeholders to promote volunteering more. This includes formally accrediting volunteering – making it easier for employers, educators and young people themselves to see the benefits that can be gained from volunteering.

For goodness sake – even the government has realised that volunteers bring something to the table that the statutory arm cannot. There is nothing like volunteering for the good of people, for the good of the individual and for the good of the cause.