Today’s publication of the formative evaluation of v, The National Young Volunteers’ Service, brings to mind the age old adage that if you help someone else, you’ll probably end up helping yourself as well.
The report contains lots of positive news; over a million volunteering opportunities for 16 to 25 year olds have been created, and it’s not just young people from affluent, white backgrounds that are taking up volunteering placements; around half (51%) of v volunteers are from low income households and a small but significant proportion (7%) are offenders or ex-offenders.
So good news all round, and some useful lessons for those charged with delivering future volunteering schemes such as the Citizenship Service (which we’re also evaluating, you can read Gareth Morrell’s blog about this here) on how to achieve successful social mixing and engage young people.
But if we put aside these headline findings for one moment and consider what all this actually means for a young person, what answers does the evaluation offer us? It’s this question that has really exercised my interest whilst working on the project, particularly having met and interviewed some of the young people who took part in v.
The answer is that hard impacts that can be directly attributed to volunteering, such as gaining employment, remain tricky to measure. Young people may be involved in a range of activities of which their volunteering is one; they may gain employment but also continue to volunteer alongside working – one does not necessarily lead onto the other. However, what we did find is that young people said they experienced a range of overwhelmingly positive impacts as a direct result of volunteering. For example, 91 per cent of young volunteers agreed or strongly agreed that their ability to communicate with others had improved; 84 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that they are more able to lead or encourage others; and 78 per cent that their ability to make decisions had improved.
Taken alone each of these indicate fairly soft impacts. ‘So what?’ we might ask. But take another look at the cumulative effect of these impacts on young people. I think it’s possible to argue that when taken altogether, these impacts provide the skills young people need to be confident, grounded and resilient. The feelings of confidence and belonging to a social group that youngsters reported experiencing as a result of volunteering, can in turn lead to a greater sense of wellbeing. For example, we’ve recently finished work on a consultation for Mind, the mental health charity. A clear message to emerge from this was that adults who had personal experience of mental distress themselves, recognised the importance of nurturing a sense of well being amongst young people, citing early intervention and the holistic promotion of positive mental health as key priorities. Volunteering schemes appear to be one way in which young people can build up the positive self image required for such wellbeing and resilience – alongside the development of skills that will help them find a job or stay in education. Winston Churchill may have put it best when he said ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’