Features: April 16th, 2010

By John May

Promoting volunteering is on the agenda of the main political parties and its benefits are broadly recognised. Young Enterprise has a history of training and supporting volunteers effectively and its chief executive looks at the volunteering scene and outlines how it can be developed locally and nationally.

Volunteering is high on the political agenda of both the Labour and Conservative parties with both suggesting that more should be done to enable volunteering, particularly for young people. Both have suggested different forms of a ‘National Civic Service’ and it will be interesting to see how these are presented in their election manifestos.

Volunteering England has recently released its own manifesto that calls on the Government to strengthen volunteering. Dr Justin Davis Smith states in his introduction to the manifesto, ‘Volunteering is a central, indispensable part of the fabric of civil society’. It is something that needs to be encouraged and embedded in society – Government alone cannot make the difference, we all need to realise the role volunteering can play and the role we have in driving this forward.

Benefits of volunteering

The benefits of an increased voluntary workforce are there for all to see – services and organisations can continue to deliver and improve standards, trust is formed between individuals and communities and a sense of integration begins to appear.

It is not just social issues that volunteering can help to change. Recent reports warn that GDP figures for the first quarter of this year are unlikely to show much progress compared to the closing three months of 2009, when the economy edged out of recession. Many more economic challenges lie ahead and it is important we understand the role that volunteers from business can play in ensuring our young people are prepared for this.

Young Enterprise brings volunteers from businesses of all sizes into the classroom to work with teachers and students and from what we have seen since we were established 48 years ago, the benefits to young people and to the economy are immense. Volunteer business advisers open young people’s eyes to the world of work, inspiring them to develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed.

Volunteering can provide all individuals with the necessary skills and opportunities to create the best advantage in life. It is an important way for business and education to work together to inspire young people to succeed.

Enterprise education is about inspiring a generation of enterprising young people to drive our economy forward and tackle the big social and environmental issues. Unemployment currently stands at almost 2.5million, with over 900,000 16-24 year-olds out of work. By fostering an enterprising spirit and by encouraging our young people to realise their aspirations we can drive the recovery forward and halt this worrying rise.

Making a difference

Volunteers have the ability to inspire young people to change their attitudes, behaviours and perceptions, igniting that spark in a young person that will start them off on a journey lasting the rest of their lives. As well as teachers, young people need role models and mentors from the world outside of education – from businesses across every sector of the UK economy. It is vitally important that we see the potential that exists in young people as the employees, employers and leaders of the future.

Young Enterprise works with a growing network of businesses, bringing together over 5,000 business volunteers with 300,000 young people each year. Our volunteers come from a variety of sectors, from media to manufacturing and international corporates to one man bands.

The case for volunteering

It is important to recognise the value of the different types of volunteering that exist, the individual benefits that can be gained and what needs to be done in order to drive this forward. Volunteering England’s manifesto also refers to Baroness Neuberger’s review of volunteering in the civil service, in which she makes a number of recommendations, including that all departments should allow their staff up to five days a year to volunteer.

In the last in a series of reports on volunteering, Baroness Neuberger sets out the business case under three main headings:

1. Outreach and community engagement enables government to be more responsive

2. Volunteering is in itself a way of enabling practical learning and development

3. It boosts staff morale and builds teams

Each of these case points are without doubt something that the Government should continue to act upon. Aside from benefitting departmental staff, encouraging volunteering among Government employees sends out a message to all businesses, regardless of sector, size or location that it is leading by example. Government should champion volunteering to create a culture where skills and experience can be passed from one individual to another in a safe and productive environment.

Young Enterprise has a history of training and supporting volunteers effectively, building up a successful infrastructure that offers the support needed to ensure both parties benefit. Volunteers are supported on a local and regional level as well as nationally, creating a movement of volunteers who are committed to one central cause. Not only do the young people gain a role model, mentor and advisor but volunteering stimulates the volunteer’s own personal and professional development.

Taking volunteering forward

The importance of improving the skills of volunteer managers so that they are of the highest possible level is another key issue raised in Volunteering England’s manifesto. Research has shown that 73% of volunteering organisations would engage more volunteers if they could secure more resources. Even if the will to engage employees in volunteering opportunities is there, the Government is falling down on providing the necessary support for this to happen. If this is put in place then businesses across the UK can more effectively help to contribute to the movement of volunteers we need to keep the country economically and socially stable.

There are a lot of myths that surround volunteering and therefore put people off getting involved – “I have no time”, “studying and earning money is more important” and “it won’t benefit me therefore why would I do it”, are just a few concerns commonly expressed. However, volunteering one or two hours once a week or even every fortnight will make a difference to your community. It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment and the results are guaranteed to make those two hours immeasurably rewarding. Academic and vocational success is important but the skills and experience gained from volunteering will make you more employable and, if provided by your employer can increase job satisfaction.

A survey of volunteers compiled by the Institute for Volunteering Research in 2009 showed that teamwork increased by 78%, leadership by 68% and communication was up 67% from figures recorded in 2008. This clearly illustrates that businesses who support employee volunteering can develop valuable skills and experience in their staff and create a more effective and motivated workforce in the present.

Enterprise education is about allowing all young people the opportunity to make the most of their existing skills, gain experience, build confidence and create for themselves a better future. Young people have been dramatically affected by the current levels of unemployment and, while it did reach record highs in 2009, a crowded labour market is not synonymous with this recession and will always be something young people face when they leave school.

Supporting volunteers to pass on vital business skills not only ensures a stronger work force but enterprising skills and attitudes that lead to the creation of new business opportunities which create jobs and reduce unemployment. Business and education must work together to create a cycle of economic prosperity.

We need whichever political party gains power in the forthcoming election to make good on their promises and help organisations such as Young Enterprise and Volunteering England to support and provide opportunities for volunteers. This will not only create a sense of nationwide civic pride but help steer the country out of recession by sharing skills and knowledge that will help the future workforce to evolve and succeed in a rapidly changing global economy.

John May is Chief Executive of Young Enterprise.