A lack of opportunity in some regions of the UK, patchy citizenship education, and an outdated, short-term view of why young people engage in volunteering are key factors hindering sustained and meaningful engagement in unpaid work, finds a new report.

Publishing today, this rapid evidence review from the Institute for Community Studies was commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to explore young people’s experiences of, and attitudes to, volunteering.

Through research with 650 11- to 30-year-olds around the UK, the findings suggest a new approach is needed, supporting young people to shape their own ‘Volunteering Journey’ over time. This more flexible, hybrid approach would allow individuals to choose voluntary work that reflect their interests, causes they care about, their life experiences, and the opportunities available to them in their geographical location.

The report highlights three main themes:  

  • The need to establish a common language for youth volunteering that reflects its hybrid, changing and adaptive nature.
  • The need to support ‘volunteer literacy’ for all young people so they can understand, navigate, and participate in volunteering.
  • The need for youth-centred pathways in the Volunteering Journey, recognising the background and circumstances of each young person is critical in influencing attitudes to – and frequency of – volunteering.

Barriers to sustained engagement 

The review also exposes a prevailing ‘postcode lottery’, with the average net expenditure on youth services reportedly £62 per head in urban areas, compared to £47 per head in rural areas. Opportunities to volunteer are therefore offered inconsistently, between regions, education institutions, and workplaces – and location powerfully determines if and how young people are supported to volunteer.

The findings also suggest the citizenship curriculum lacks impact. Among 125 reflections from young people on what sparked their engagement with volunteering, just one mentioned citizenship education.

Another concern is the ‘triple burden’, with young people balancing volunteering with paid work, social and family commitments, and their own mental health. The latter, in particular, is identified an emerging barrier to sustained engagement. One 25-year-old describes the impact of pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in the USA in 2020, and war in Ukraine as “a barrier to volunteering for me, because I’m always wondering if I should be doing something else.”

Calling for a new approach 

Overall, the report calls for a greater emphasis on young people’s agency in shaping their own volunteering pathways, and an integrated approach that increases the impact of young people’s volunteering experiences by linking programmes and initiatives with each other, and explicitly considering the transitions between them.

Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies, reflects: “The hybrid ways in which young people participate in volunteering, their motivations for engaging with it, and the ‘triple burden’ barriers they face, have changed significantly over the years. We need to develop policies and support frameworks that acknowledge and respond to this, if we are to grow a sustained volunteering base for the future – and if we are to maximise the benefits of volunteering to young people as individuals, to their local communities, and to society more broadly.”

Read the report and explore our work supporting young people to reimagine their civic engagement

Institute for Community Studies Posted on: 15 September 2022


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