This article was written by Ross Young, a Charityworks trainee on the 2014 programme. You can find Ross on Twitter here.
As part of a CharityWorks learning day, our cohort had a very broad discussion about volunteering and we talked about the reasons why young people in particular decide to volunteer. Invariably, volunteering is very often regarded as an altruistic act by those of us in society who can spare some time from our professional lives, in order to give something back to a community that requires our assistance in some way. If we ask the National Council for Voluntary Organisations for their definition, for example, they regard volunteering as “Any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives.”
Yet the feeling amongst many of us in the cohort is that volunteering is quite often about much more than the donation of our time for the benefit of others. In a country where 764,000 young people between the ages of 16-24 are unemployed, people often have no choice but to seek out opportunities to volunteer in order to develop their own skillset, gain firsthand experience of a sector in which they aspire to work, and to discover that elusive ‘way in’ that offers a route to their Elysium of future employment.
For those of us who have recently entered the incredibly competitive world of post university employment, volunteering very often serves as a pre-requisite to acquire the opportunity to even get an interview with an organisation for which we would like to work. This is hardly surprising, given that over 350,000 people graduated from university last year, and now attaining a credible degree is simply not enough to make you stand out to your prospective employer.
In order to ‘develop our CVs’, a phrase I find particularly unsettling, young people will quite literally go the extra mile, very often at an exorbitant financial expense. In our pursuit of gainful employment, some of us will help to build schools in Africa, others will teach English to children in Phnom Penh, many will try their hands at turtle conservation projects in Madagascar, and those who are lucky may even procure an unpaid internship at an international charity. Having said that, you don’t have to travel half way across the world to volunteer for a worthy cause, and many volunteer projects here in the UK are extremely engaging and rewarding. Indeed, according to The New Alchemy Report released in 2014, 34% of 16-24 year olds in the UK have volunteered in some capacity.
Therefore, whilst there exists a strong correlation between high youth unemployment and a significant percentage of young people who are actively in engaging in volunteering, organisations that offer volunteering opportunities have a critical role to play in the development of young people. When designing volunteering opportunities, it is vital that organisations consider both the crucial role that volunteers can play in supporting other people, but equally they must consider what the organisation can offer to each volunteer that will help them develop their skills and experience. Developing clear and concise policies and procedures for volunteers is one measure organisations can take to ensure continuity in the experience of their volunteers, as well as robust organisational procedures to ensure that sufficient support and supervision is afforded to each volunteer. I also see value in conveying from the outset the specific skills that volunteers could obtain by volunteering for your organisation, as well as any tangible benefits such as written references at the end of their placement, which could stand them in good stead in future job applications. Whilst altruism remains a core motivation for many young people to become volunteers, it is important for organisations to recognise that the volunteer opportunities they offer should be reciprocal.
Simply put, volunteers should be able to gain as much out of their experience as they put in. For some volunteers, this could be an intangible, intrinsic sense of personal satisfaction gained by helping another person. Yet with employment opportunities proving so difficult for young people to come by, we must, in a measureable way, offer young people something in return for their willingness to help our organisations for free.