A new age in volunteering

INVOLVEMENT in volunteering is having a dramatic impact on young people, the voluntary sector and the unemployed, according to ProjectScotland. In just over 18 months the national volunteering scheme, which launched in 2005 and is based on the successful AmeriCorps programme, claims to have changed the perception of volunteering among the young.

It also claims significant benefits to businesses, participating charities and agencies, and the volunteers themselves.

According to figures revealed to Herald Society, involvement in ProjectScotland halves a young person's chance of being unemployed, increases fundamental communication skills and enhances the ability of voluntary groups to make a difference.

More than half of young people are aware of ProjectScotland. Mention “volunteering” in the past, and most young people apparently pictured the musty charity shops that line many Scottish high streets.

Valuable as the work of the largely elderly folkwho staff them is, the concept has not been seen as “sexy”by the under-25s, but that is changing, according to the Scottish Executive-backed youth volunteering organisation. It reports that it is changing young Scots’ perception of volunteering. They now realise that is an attractive route into worlds such as publishing, fundraising, forestry work or education.

A new report into the agency’s first 20 months finds that more than 1000 young Scots have enjoyed diverse volunteering placements, which, formany, have bridged what can be a difficult gap between education and the world of work.

When the school gates closed behind Steve Cousins for the last time, the road ahead was shrouded in mist. Without a clear way forward, he found himself filed under “Neet”- the acronym applied to young people who are not in education, employment or training – and spending his young adulthood on the dole. “I left school at 16. I did odd jobs but I was on the dole at 17. I went downhill fast. I was just hanging about. I got involved with drugs and alcohol and all that.When I was about 19, a youth worker said to me, you’ve got a choice in how you live your life, but if you carry on going the way you are going that will be it.I made a choice that was to change my life.”

Steve became a volunteer for the Prince’s Trust in Stirling, exchanging his Jobseeker’s Allowance for a GBP55-a-week volunteer’s allowance. He went on to volunteer on a youth project for Stirling Council and is now employed full-time as a youth worker.

But volunteering is not just for young school leavers. Matt Riley, an Edinburgh University history graduate, was turned down when he applied to become a secondary-school teacher. Realising that he needed more experience of working with young people, he applied to ProjectScotland. After sixmonths working with teenagers on the Canongate Youth Project, he got a job as a classroom assistant at an Edinburgh school. From there, he should find it much easier to access teacher training.

He said: “I was so pleased to get the classroom-assistant job. I couldn’t have got it without the placement, so I was grateful.”

There are plenty of other such stories. Jenny Wood from Paisley, a former part-time model and shop assistant, says her experience was amazing. “I really wanted to get into community arts but didn’t have adequate experience. At the time I felt that I was in a job rut, taking a succession of part-time jobs but not really achieving anything.

“I saw an advert on television and thought why not? I’d tried just about everything else and the fact that it was exclusively formy age group made a huge difference. I started with Impact Arts as an artistic volunteer. Now I have got a full-time job with Impact Arts in an industry I always wanted to work in.”

Laura Coe, who lives in Aberdeenshire, left school at 15, with no idea what to do next. Coe, whose family was in the news when her grandfather, Michael Coe, was kidnapped in Nigeria, works as a fundraiser for Maritime Rescue, a local lifeboat charity. “I have really enjoyed it. It can be stressful but I really get on with the people I workwith and I have learned a lot. I think if I hadn’t done this, I would be doing a dead-end job.”

ProjectScotland’s chief executive, Kate Mavor, says: “When we did our initial research, we found that most young people saw volunteering as something their granny did or their auntie did. They associated it with much older age groups.

“So we have been trying to change the brand of volunteering. We are trying to hook into young people’s networks.”Finding ways to reach young people has included a TV ad campaign and using internet sites popular with the young. Mavor adds: “We are on myspace and Youtube. We want young people to come across us themselves or to hear about us through word-of-mouth.

“We also found that they wanted to work with other young people and not be on their own in an office doing admin. So we create teams and projects. We also want them to feel that they have achieved something, so, at the end of the six months, they can say, well there wasn’t a garden here before, or there wasn’t a social programme before.”

She believes that volunteering in an increasingly diverse range of areas, from the Edinburgh Film Festival to Creative Scotland to the Active Schools programme, gives people of every ability a chance to find skills they may not have known they had or to find opportunities they might have thought beyond them. And, unlike a gap-year spent travelling abroad, a year or sixmonths spent volunteering in Scotland can add to a sense of belonging and of place in the young person’s own community.

“It can be a way of getting young people to engage with their community. Some people spend their teenage years staring at a computer or hanging out with their clique of friends, ” says Mavor. “They may have no idea what is happening at the end of their street.”

A good placement will also offer opportunities for growth and development that they may not get in paid employment. “The volunteers can get involved in a way they might not be ready for if they were employed. If they are employed they are going to have a job spec and targets to meet, and they may not be quite ready for that.”

The downside may be that providing this kind of facility does not come cheap. The Scottish Executive funds ProjectScotland to the tune of GBP3.5m a year and, in addition, 50 organisations and businesses have sponsored volunteers, enabling around 650,000 hours of voluntary work to be done that would not otherwise have been carried out.

Perhaps suprisingly, in effect, every hour of voluntary work”costs” around GBP5 an hour.

“But there are savings, too. Around a quarter of our volunteers were on Jobseeker’s allowance, which they stop claiming, and many of them go on to employment, “Mavor argues. She would like to offer many more placements, however, her hands are tied by the need to pay weekly allowances. “We have had funding support from ScottishPower and HBoS and we are very keen to get more places sponsored.”

She sees volunteering as a realistic alternative to education and training, appealing to young people who may feel they are drifting. “It is amazing howmany have no idea what they want to do, ” says Mavor.

“But, through volunteering and with their mentor, they can discover what they like doing. We were asked if we wanted the Scottish Qualifications Authority to assess some of our projects for qualifications. But we said no because we think it is important that this is something people do outside of that. It is voluntary work and we want to concentrate on making the projects suit the young people who are doing them, not on ticking boxes.”

For info see www. projectscotland. co. uk or call 08458 416225.

Trumpeting voluntary success More than 1000 young Scots have volunteered with 130 partner charities and not-for-profit organisations.

More than 70-per cent continue to volunteer after placement.

85-per cent of the partner voluntary organisations report that they have been able to do more as a result of the projects. 92-per cent say the quality of service they offer is better.

Among young volunteers, 89-per cent say they feel more confident. 87-per cent say they are more responsible and 86-per cent think that their relationship skills have improved.

More than 20-per cent of volunteers were unemployed before placement but only 9-per cent are unemployed afterwards.

47-per cent go on to employment, 36-per cent into education and training and 8-per cent go on to do other things such as business start-ups.

17-per cent of volunteers live in areas of multiple deprivation.

ProjectScotland is supported by 50 businesses, which have given GBP750,000 in funding since its launch 20 months ago.

Because of the way organisations are supported, and the “match-making” of volunteers to schemes, ProjectScotland can claim volunteering would not have taken place if it were not in existence.

The project, which has had 2500 enquiries, aims ultimately to find placements for up to 10,000 young Scots each year.

The Herald
6th February 2007