AVM Learning & Development Day: Engaging Young People Through Social Action

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[1]. 42% of young people are regularly participating in social action[2] 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’[3]. 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[4]. 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?

[1] NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac 2016
[2] #iwill youth social action survey 2015
[3] Livity research on Young People Volunteering in Health and Social Care
[4] Helping Out survey 2007

Volunteering and Gapyearing

It's becoming the time of year when the national printed press bash volunteering on a gap year. No that's no quite true. There's certainly a debate to be had about the value of volunteering with certain projects around the world, but really it's part of the broader debate on approaches to development work in general. For example, the charge of "new colonialist" is something that could be levelled at any number of developmental projects across the globe.

Judith Brodie, VSO Director, origin of the "new colonialist" quote issued another press release this year- hammering home her message in case we'd forgotten:

"Last year VSO warned that gappers risked becoming the new colonialists if attitudes to voluntary work in the developing world didn't change. It argued that the gap year market was increasingly catering to the needs of volunteers, rather than the communities they claim to support."

Dutifully papers like the Daily Telegraph, The Times and Daily Mail printed the whole of the press release pretty much slanted in such a way that the message seemed to be that volunteering abroad is basically an ineffective guilt soothing waste of time. Daily Mail reader Mike from Dunstable better sums up this school of thought than I can:

"I don't understand why all of a sudden students seem to think it compulsory to have a "gap year" which appears to be a waste of time. Why can't they go straight off to university and waste their time there instead."

Unfortunately none of the papers printed what the VSO Director seemed to be basically saying which was: if you're going to do voluntary work overseas research it well. VSO produced an interesting checklist that serves to ensure volunteers should have, rightly, high expectations of their volunteer management:

1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?
2. Will you meet face to face with your provider and attend a selection day to assess your suitability for the volunteering opportunities and gain detailed information about the structure of your placement?
3. How much will it cost and what does this pay for?
4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?
5. Is the work you do linked to long-term community partnerships that have a lasting impact? And how do volunteers work in partnership with the local community?
6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?
7. Can your organisation guarantee you 24 hour a day health, safety and security assistance?
8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity amongst its volunteers?
9. How does the organisation encourage long-term awareness of real development issues?
10. How will your work be monitored and evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?

If we want to improve standards in volunteer management, educating potential volunteers about what the ingredients to a worthwhile volunteering experience are, is surely an important part of this.

There's certainly an interesting debate to be had and it's worth reading the case studies in The Guardian (last year!). There's a firey debate after The Times article. The Guardian this year asks rather facetiously whether gap years should be for 'backpacking' fun?

The pick of the crop is this thoughtful article blogged by Alex Klaushofer at AlertNet titled "Are gap-year do-gooders wasting their time?"

What certainly comes through is that volunteering certainly is a hot topic which has a wider appeal than many give it credit for. The challenge for us is how to help ensure high standards in volunteering are ensured. Last year Dr. Kate Simpson launched the initiative Ethical Volunteering which takes anyone interested in volunteering through three steps to finding and discerning ethical and valuable volunteering experiences.

I have to declare an interest in this issue as someone who volunteered abroad for eight years. Much of the polemic comes from companies selling volunteering experiences. Tom Griffiths, Founder of gapyear.com, a portal for finding gapyear placements, questions VSO's neutrality making the point that VSO is itself a competitor working to attract gapyearers. It's interesting to ponder whether when the volunteer is a paying customer who the actual beneficiary is in the equation.

One point I'd agree with that comes through is that research is key and paying an agency should not be seen as a way of shortcutting this time consuming process. Often you'll be handsomely repaid for every hour you spend doing you research, looking into opportunities, communities, personal skills, etc., whether or not you volunteer via an agency.

People should not rule out doing this research in situ and build in a certain period of time for getting your bearings (learning language, finding your way around, meeting the people) before starting to volunteer. So often the most interesting opportunities are advertised word of mouth and can only be found once you're there. In addition, organisations will inevitably listen more to anyone who's already in the country and you'll be better placed to say realistically what you're able to offer.

In summary, it comes back to the guidance from ethical volunteering:

1) Look for an ethical organisation

2) Question the organisation

3) Question yourself

As JFK (who set up the Peace Corps) said (almost): ask yourself what you can offer the community through volunteering, not what the community can offer you because you're volunteering.

Keep this to heart and your volunteering during your gapyear (whenever you take it) could well be one of the most rewarding, minute for minute, of your life.