Following on from out latest Learning and Development event; Ruth Leonard, Head of Volunteering Development at Macmillan Cancer Support and AVM Director reflects on the importance of involving young people in voluntary roles.
For me, as a Director of AVM the ability for organisations to offer activities which engage young people is a sensible way of future proofing the volunteering movement – and being able to creatively respond to their needs and ideas can help improve the volunteering experience for all and lead to exciting meaningful developments for people to shape their futures and communities.
It is clear from the data that young people between 16 and 25 years old still represent the highest overall rate of volunteers compared with all other age groups. With a 4% increase on last year, rates of young people involved in formal volunteering are at their highest for over a decade. 42% of young people are regularly participating in social action and most of those who do feel that it is important to them; is part of their routine and is something they would always do – which is really positive.
However whilst appetite is high, awareness about volunteering and other social action opportunities does seem low. 41% who didn’t participate said they wouldn’t know where to begin or that it had just never occurred to them so it looks as though promoting just what is available and in places and ways that are identifiable to this age group is essential.
One of the biggest issues facing volunteer involving organisations is that young people just don’t identify with the term ‘volunteer’ nor ‘social action’. As one participant put it “the first rule of volunteering: don’t mention volunteering”.
But once we get the messaging right young people fully understand the benefits of giving their time and energy – giving them the chance to develop life skills and valuable experience. Not that this is the only reason young people want to get involved, in fact the main reason given by 16-24 year olds who volunteer is that “they wanted to improve things, help people” with 56% of them identifying this – higher than across all other age groups. Learning more skills was identified as the 2nd reason – again the highest of all age groups, but this was clearly to be alongside with enjoying themselves and socialising
All of which is a challenge – and opportunity – to think about the kind of roles we as volunteer managers’ offer; and how we offer them. Young people are looking to be challenged and to help to shape the activities they are involved with so we should be looking at our volunteer roles and tasks differently and ensure young people can contribute. We also need to challenge our perceptions about what young people can – and want – to do. An example of this is from my professional role at Macmillan:
Abby Lennox is a remarkable 22 year old who is one of Macmillan’s Lead Volunteers for a service which provides practical and emotional support to people affected by cancer in Belfast. Abby effectively manages the service and provides support to other volunteers, something which traditionally we may have felt was not attractive to a young person. When asked what she’d say to others who were thinking about volunteering in the community she said “I’d say do it! You’ll not regret it and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner” Unsurprisingly Abby was a winner of the Young Macmillan Champion Awards for inspiring and exceptional young volunteers in 2015.
It is important to build recognition and reward into a volunteer programme and Macmillan is proud to be able to say a specific thank you to our young volunteers. One of this year’s winners is Zara Salim – a volunteer inspiring a generation. When the 13 year old’s granddad was diagnosed with cancer last year she was motivated to raise money for Macmillan by selling her own toys. She quickly reached her target but then went on to step-up her fundraising from organising a coffee morning to arranging an auction, contacting local businesses and being overwhelmed by generous donations. Zara’s passion and enthusiasm for volunteering seems boundless and she inspires others through sharing her story in the community and at school
Encouraging young volunteers to recognise their specific skills and reflect on what they’ve learnt through volunteering is also valuable – both to develop their own confidence and self-esteem but also to be able to demonstrate externally to future employers for example, and Macmillan has created a Development Journal in which volunteers can write down all the things they experience and learn while volunteering with the hope that it will be a useful tool to help set their goals, reflect on what they’ve learned and review their achievements.
The Association of Volunteer Managers is a great place to network with other volunteer managers – to hear about and share ideas from others at a range of different organisations and to be a central place to discuss issues such as ‘so how do we talk about volunteering if the word itself is a barrier?’! Our next networking day will be addressing this fascinating subject of recruiting and engaging young volunteers and will be a great opportunity to meet others and keep the debate going.
I have shared examples from my organisation because clearly it is the one I know best, but it would be great to hear from others – what kind of powerful tools do you use to engage young people and please do tell us your stories of inspirational young people who give time?
 NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac 2016
 #iwill youth social action survey 2015
 Livity research on Young People Volunteering in Health and Social Care
 Helping Out survey 2007