Volunteering: it makes a difference

Blog posts

21 Feb 2018

Joy WilliamsJoy Williams, Research Fellow

During Student Volunteering Week (#SVW2018), Joy Williams, research fellow at IES, presents a timely look at the evidence on the benefits of higher education students taking part in volunteering. 

Why should students volunteer?

With Student Volunteering Week upon us, it’s an ideal time to reflect on the findings from recent research conducted by IES on behalf of the Careers and Enterprise Company in 2017.

Students in Higher Education may wonder why they should volunteer free-of-charge for the benefit of others when there are so many other demands on their time. Our report highlighted some of the many positive reasons for getting involved, which divide into two main categories of personal development, and benefit to the wider community:

  • Gather experiences, learn new skills and gain accreditations that employers are looking for;
  • Try out work in a sector before committing to it;
  • Stand out from the crowd to employers who are looking for examples of commitment, confidence and maturity;
  • Get involved in the local community and change stereotypes about students;
  • Raise awareness of societal issues

Reasons for continuing to volunteer may differ from initial motivations. For example, young people might start to volunteer to undertake activities within a group they know or trust, but they may continue because of immediate tangible rewards (the ‘feel good’ factor or a certificate), and commit to long-term volunteering where they have an opportunity to shape the content of activities.

Is volunteering a middle class preserve?

Volunteering offers benefits that could be particularly useful to disadvantaged young people who may acquire social capital and insights into career opportunities which they are less likely to gain than more privileged peers. Yet this is not borne out by evidence on how volunteering rates vary by key demographic characteristics. Volunteers are more likely to be from affluent social backgrounds, more likely to be white than from a BAME background and more likely to be female than male.

In order to ensure that all students can engage with volunteering, the staff and organisations coordinating higher education (HE) student volunteering should: promote opportunities across their student body; provide advice about any financial support available; provide accurate advice about potential financial implications (to welfare benefits); and promote a range of volunteering opportunities including micro-volunteering and digital activities.

How do students get involved with volunteering?

The most common structures for coordinating HE student volunteering include brokerage services located in student employability or community engagement teams and/or student unions, external programmes like v inspired or the #iwill campaign, volunteering modules/electives, student-led volunteering societies and student-led social enterprises.

There is also a place for volunteering to be embedded within modules and for universities to encourage co-curricular as well as extra-curricular social action and volunteering. Any brokerage services need to maintain choice of whether or not to volunteer and provide as much autonomy as possible within a programme. Volunteers that can exercise control over what they do, where they do it, and how long they do it for, report higher satisfaction levels.

How do students benefit?

Our recent report found that volunteering directly developed employability skills such as communication skills, teamwork and social skills for young volunteers. Volunteering can help develop skills that are useful in employment, particularly: event planning; teamwork; leadership; decision-making; and problem-solving. ‘Soft’ skills which students can improve upon, and are useful for any setting, include communication skills, confidence and self-esteem.

Within graduate employment research, volunteering is recognised as a way to develop personal maturity, confidence and a broader horizon, providing ‘extra value’ in the graduate labour market. Research from IES and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills found that employers look not only for work experience but also ‘wider’ life experience from voluntary work and other university activities.

This raises the question of how the signalling and labour market value of volunteering for students may change if it becomes more widespread. Gains for individual volunteers may reduce if volunteering becomes more commonplace, as it will appear on more candidates’ CVs.

What are the wider benefits?

Universities are increasingly being held to account with regard to how students are supported in articulating their skills and attributes as they prepare to move into employment. Therefore, many encourage students to volunteer as an extra-curricular activity. Where students are active within the local community, this can also improve university and community cohesion and engagement. For example schemes such as litter picking, gardening or collecting students’ unwanted possessions at the end of the year to re-use and recycle, preventing them  being discarded in the street, improves the appearance of local communities.

In addition to the benefits for the university, there is also an impact on the immediate beneficiaries and wider society. Recent research studies have attempted to calculate a fiscal return on investment and show generally positive results, although with varying rates of return.

Finally, there are also benefits to the organisations where HE volunteers are hosted. The host organisation gets an extra pair of hands to increase their capacity to deliver services. HE students are welcomed particularly for their enthusiasm, creativity and dynamism. When compared to older volunteers, HE student volunteers tend to be from more diverse backgrounds and therefore can contribute a broader range of perspectives.

Nevertheless, there are drawbacks as well as benefits for host organisations of student volunteers. HE students in particular tend to be available for short periods during term time, which can result in higher costs associated with training and mentoring of volunteers. Smaller organisations therefore have to consider whether they can afford the resources to manage the churn in volunteers. The IES report recommended that longer volunteering placements should be encouraged, in order for young people to develop a range of skills and to reduce the administrative burden on the host organisation.

Go and make a difference

Volunteering can support transitions to employment as it can have an impact on skill development. The research evidence for the impact of volunteering is growing, and with the addition of longer-term impact measures the case for expansion can clearly be made. Volunteering doesn’t have to be a middle class preserve for those that can afford a gap year. Digital and campaigning activities, micro-volunteering for small increments of time, and making use of technology can all develop skills and make a difference to volunteers’ immediate community and beyond. If implemented well, through a variety of channels to volunteer, student volunteering offers clear benefits for students, organisations and wider society.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.