What can volunteering really achieve?

James Davies, Strathclyde University is working on a PhD looking at young people’s experiences of volunteering. James Davies

Young people and volunteering. These are words we encounter daily and which are often presented to us without an explanation of what they are referring to. For example, when we talk about young people who exactly do we mean? There are important differences along gender, ethnic and class lines which shape behaviour and opportunities. Similarly, when we say volunteering are we referring to one-off informal acts, such as babysitting, or regular and planned formal activities, like volunteering at a community centre? Volunteering is frequently considered a win-win activity benefiting individuals and communities alike, but do existing voluntary opportunities favour certain sections of the population leading to the exclusion of others?

One of the presumed benefits of voluntary action is that it can lead to employment. Skills Development Scotland have a webpage dedicated to showing how volunteering can help individuals search for jobs. Yet the link between volunteering and employment may not be so straightforward. Whilst it may enhance a person’s employability (i.e. the skills needed to succeed in the workplace), it does not necessarily lead to actual employment. Indeed, in cases where employment has been gained after volunteering, it is not always easy to separate volunteering from other influencing factors.

Since the financial crash in 2008 the number of unemployed 16 to 24 year olds in Scotland has been steadily increasing. Although the number appears to have dropped slightly in the past year, the figure currently stands at 20%. Importantly, if we look within this we see differences along gender lines, with 17% of young women claiming Jobseekers Allowance compared to 23% of young men; the figures rise for those with disabilities. Furthermore, there are differences according to the length of time spent on Jobseekers Allowance; the number of claimants on it for six to twelve months fell by 32% during the past year, whereas the number on it for two or more years rose by 54%.

With high numbers of young people out of work and with variations according to social characteristics, we need to think carefully about trying to use volunteering as a cure-all to problems such as unemployment. There are broader social factors that, depending on a person’s position within the social system, can either further or hamper their ability to ‘get-ahead’ in life.

However, while volunteering may not always lead to employment, there are other important social benefits it can bring which should not be dismissed. Individuals can gain experiences, learn skills and boost their confidence. Communities can benefit from the actions of volunteers in areas the public and private sectors fail to reach, the socially excluded can be engaged with and local organisations can ease demand on their services.

We need a wider and more detailed understanding of what volunteering means and what it can achieve; how does it relate to employment, which sections of the population benefit from it, what are the localised differences and why do they exist? Questions that are being addressed within the Scotland’s Best program.

While still scoping the exact focus of the research, my PhD, with the University of Strathclyde and Volunteer Scotland, will explore young people’s perceptions of volunteering; their experiences of it (or lack thereof), whether they think it is a beneficial activity to pursue and what they think it can achieve.

I welcome communication and engagement from organisations with an interest in young people and volunteering as well as contributions from young people themselves.



James Davies

First year PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde

Working with Volunteer Scotland

Email: james.davies [at] strath.ac.uk Twitter: @james925


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