Youth Volunteering: Beyond Step Up to Serve?

In all the years I’ve been tracking the development of ‘youth volunteering’ in the UK [1] I’d somehow managed to miss one not insignificant fact: that the life of Step Up to Serve, the organisation which has taken a lead role in its promotion, was ‘time-limited’ to the end of 2020. Launched by the Prince of Wales with cross-party support [2] in November 2013, it was the response to an ‘independent review’ initiated the previous year by Prime Minister David Cameron[3]. Central throughout to achieving its ambitious goal of ‘encourag(ing) 1.7 million more young people aged 10 to 20 to make helping others a habit for life’[4] has been its co-ordination of ‘#iwill’ – a campaign also referred to as a ‘movement’. With 400 young people now representing it as ‘Ambassadors and Champions’, (and to date £100 million of ‘investment’), #iwill has been ‘convening and connecting, communicating with and challenging’ over 1,000 ‘pledge partners’ across the UK. As a result, it now claims to have ‘laid the foundations to transform the role and perception of children and young people within society’[5].

In preparation for its closure, last October Step Up to Serve invited ‘expressions of interest’ from organisations which could show that they shared #iwill’s values and had the necessary ‘expertise and resources’ to ensure its continuation until the end of 2025[6]. 

Again – some recent pre-history

As always of course, from at least the 1960s all this has its own history, much of it underpinned by strong state interest and indeed endorsement[7]. In 2009, for example, Gordon Brown suggested when he was Prime Minister that community service might be made compulsory for all under-19 year olds[8]. Though New Labour backed off from this proposal – a response which at least implicitly was endorsed at the time by the young people who described their experience of compulsory participation in rural conservation projects as ‘slave labour’ and ‘grunt work’[9] – its commitment to youth volunteering remained strong. Having already (in 2006) supported the creation of V’ – later renamed ‘vinspired’ – whose income at its peak reached £50 million[10], shortly before it lost power in 2010 the Labour government also allocated £6 million to five local authorities for 14-16 year olds to carry out 50 hours of ‘community work’[11]. 

In 2016-17 pressure built again to introduce full-time volunteering – defined as, for 16-25 year olds, more than 16 hours a week or more, for 6 months or more[12]. However, in the context of ‘young people from the poorest backgrounds tend(ing) to be the least likely to access structured social action opportunities’, another ‘independent’ review published in January 2018 concluded that ‘the evidence base relating to full-time social action is not strong enough at present to recommend legislative change to widen access’. It did, however, propose that the National Citizens Service (NCS) act as ‘broker and quality assurance body’ for signposting full-time opportunities for young people – a proposal which the Conservative government rejected[13].

State interest in ‘paid volunteering’ for young people has never, however, quite gone away. It appeared again, for example, last September in the Levelling up our communities report which Boris Johnson commissioned and is said to have received positively. This recommended ‘a structured programme’ to ‘subsidise under-employed young people to work on a range of social and environmental projects’ so that they could ‘serve their local areas in meaningful roles that build their skills and their sense of public duty’. The report also suggested that the programme be linked to the government’s Kickstart scheme for supporting the wages of 350,000 young people mainly in the private sector[14]. 

Throughout an austerity decade of, in real terms, nearly £1 billion of cuts to local authority Youth Services[15], other forms of youth volunteering – by now, in an entirely taken-for-granted way, relabelled ‘youth social action’ – continued to attract substantial amounts of state money, much of it routed through two ‘youth social action funds’ managed by a Cabinet Office ‘Centre for Social Action’. This included a total of £8 million in October 2013 so that ‘every young person can easily get involved and feel valued … and ultimately benefit their community’ (Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd); £11 million in February 2014; and £1.3 million in July 2015 specifically to ‘tackle the challenges facing disadvantaged young people and help embed social action in young people’s lives’ (Youth Minister Rob Wilson)[16]. 

An initial two-year funding of £10 million was also provided through a Youth United Uniformed Youth Action Fund, again with a focus on ‘deprived areas’. This aimed to attract 2,700 new volunteers to 400 new uniformed youth groups[17], increase the number of 10-17 year olds ‘engaged in high quality social action’ and ‘support … access for the growing number of NCS graduates aged 16-20 to engage in high quality social action and leadership opportunities’[18]. By mid-2016, one of the organisations targeted, the Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigade, was reporting a 65 per cent increase in leaders and volunteers[19].

Sports organisations, too, got in on the act. In 2016, for example, Sport England worked with vinspired to use ‘sport and physical activity to engage young people in volunteering’[20]. The following year, this time in partnership with the #iwill campaign and again with ‘areas of high deprivation’ a priority, it launched a £3 million fund to increase volunteering opportunities for 10-20 year olds[21] One of the two volunteering schemes created by Boris Johnson in 2014 when he was Mayor of London aimed to offer work and training for unemployed 16-18 year olds in sporting as well as cultural events. (The other scheme focused on getting 16-18 year olds still in full-time education to commit to 16 hours of volunteering in their local areas.[22])

Who’s volunteering?

With Vinspired folding at the end of 2018, Step Up to Serve has remained a primary conduit for state funding into these kinds of programmes. Evaluated each year since 2014 by the market research organisation Ipsos MORI, the latest Summary Report[23] reveals that young people’s overall participation between 2015 and 2019 fell from 59 to 53 per cent. Their involvement also dropped, from 42 to 36 per cent, in what is called ‘meaningful’ social action – defined as 

… those who have participated at least every few months over the last 12 months … or been involved in a one-off activity lasting more than a day; and (who) recognise that their activities had some benefit for both themselves and others.

And though between 2018 and 2019 the participation gap between the most and the least affluent closed slightly (from 14 to 12 percentage points), it remained significant, with 41 per cent of participants defined as ‘ABC1’ and 29 per cent as ‘C2DEs’. More young people in 2019 than in the two previous years also said there were ‘few/no opportunities in my area’ (19 per cent compared with 12 per cent in 2018 and only 4 per cent in 2017). 

Gaining – and achieving – what?

According to the 2019 report, only 50 per cent of all respondents believed that the wider public take their participation in social action seriously, with the proportion feeling their efforts had been recognised falling from 60 to 54 per cent between 2016 and 2018. Despite this, eighty eight per cent said they ‘cared about making the world a better place’ and 74 per cent felt ‘they could make a difference’. The report also concluded that ‘this sense of agency in relation to their community and the world is associated with higher levels of young people’s participation in meaningful social action’. 

Though not apparently the majority, many young people also recognised a range of personal gains: ‘increased self-confidence/self-esteem’ (mentioned by 44 per cent); ‘improved communication skills’ (42 per cent); improvements in ‘how you work as part of a team’ (38 per cent); and ‘improved social skills (31 per cent). Re-interpreted as ‘character development’, The Challenge’, one of the organisations which has been central to the delivery of NCS, has pointed to outcomes like these as of particular importance for helping NEET young people get ‘back on track’[24].

Framed by the dominant neo-liberal ideas of the period – a 2017 report for example argued that ‘a national full-time volunteering programme … could boost the UK economy by up to £199m a year[25] – over the years youth volunteering advocates have developed a broad interpretation of ‘making the world a better place’. In 2009 for example an evaluation of vinspired pointed to how it was enabling young people ‘to access new opportunities linked to education, training or employment’[26]. Boris Johnson expressed similar aspirations when he launched his two London schemes[27], as did the Chief Executive of the sports charity Street Games in 2016 when she credited volunteering experience with acquainting young people ‘with the very skills that will set them up to succeed in the workplace’[28]. As well as at times being considered as a ‘possible intervention’ with young offenders[29] and as a way of combating Muslim ‘radicalisation’[30], the volunteering element of NCS has been promoted as providing young people with valuable ‘work experience’ and as a ‘sought-after addition to any CV’ including for applications to university[31]. 

Getting involved – in what?

The report identifies ‘the most common motivating factors’ for young people’s volunteering as ‘I could do it with my friends’ and ‘If I could do it at school, college, university or work’. Underpinning these motivations, too, would seem to be another of its findings: that 52 per cent of participants (up from 30 per cent in 2018) said ‘they were specifically asked … by a teacher or member of school staff’. 

Clearly for many young people these may be the only and perhaps the most realistic routes to getting started – even perhaps to beginning to think of themselves as ‘a volunteer’. Within them, however, are significant built-in constraints, some ideological, on how ‘social action’ is understood and implemented in the Step Up to Serve context – and indeed beyond. When in 2014 Children and Young People Now called the term ‘the apparent buzzword of the moment’, Charlotte Hill – just appointed Step Up to Serve’s chief executive – insisted that it had been embedded in youth work for more than a hundred years and was ‘what people do’[32], According to the 2019 Ipsos MORI report, what this means for Step Up to Serve practice is ‘… a wide range of activities that help other people or the environment, such as fundraising, campaigning, tutoring/mentoring and giving time to charity’[33]. 

Despite fewer young people overall being involved, the 2019 report does identify an increase in ‘campaigning/raising awareness’ – from 8 per cent in 2018 and 2017 to 12 per cent in 2019. This, however, emerges as a minority activity alongside ‘fundraising or a sponsored event’ activities in which 43 per cent young people took part in 2015-2018 and 39 per cent in 2019. Moreover, explicitly drawing on ‘a classification of social action activities used by Step Up To Serve’, an 2016 evaluation of the Uniformed Youth Social Section Fund explained that ‘campaigning activities primarily relate to Remembrance Day activities, such as ‘parades’ and that ‘in the social action context (this) is always non-political’[34]. 

Ta to

For a heavily state-funded organisation like Step Up to Serve this, of course, may well be an unavoidable stance. Such wholly and explicitly de-politicised versions of social action, however, are not only in sharp conflict with the radical notion adopted by ‘liberation’ groups in the 1970s and 1980s of ‘a collective, agitational and politicised practice undertaken by and for communities seeking to change their circumstances’[35]. Particularly given the heavy reliance on teachers to prompt young people’s participation, the Step Up to Serve interpretation also surely excludes activist approaches currently favoured by many young people such as Greta Thunberg-style school strikes for raising the environmental issues frequently mentioned in Step Up to Serve papers and Black Lives Matter demonstrations against the ‘racial injustice’ which it lists as another current’ challenge’.

Beyond Step Up to Serve 

After getting ‘overwhelming feedback’ from organisations and young people that they want #iwill to continue, Step Up to Serve used its ‘expressions of interest’ paper to set out detailed ‘transitioning’ plans for its work. One repeated emphasis in this is on ‘empowering’ young people – ‘particularly those from low-income backgrounds’. This is needed, it says, both because their ‘views are still not adequately represented when decisions are made’ and because they ‘are not simply the leaders of tomorrow … (but) have the energy, talent and ideas to make a positive difference today’. Recognising the importance of these insights, James Cathcart, the director of Youth Voices Heard, a ‘Youth Participation Support Service’ and advocate for moving ‘from #iwill to #wewill’, points out that ‘the consequences of meaningful power-sharing will be challenging and change-making (otherwise what’s the point)?’[36] Indeed, for this to become real I can only reiterate what I suggested in my last blog piece on ‘youth voice’[37] – that a range of critical tests will need to be applied if, here too, such aspirations are to go beyond the safe and the taken-for-granted. 

Step Up to Serve locates this focus on young people’s role and impacts within a ‘set of challenges’ currently facing our society which it calls ‘unprecedented’. As well as ‘the climate emergency’ and ‘racial injustice’, these include ‘poverty, ‘worsening mental health and wellbeing’ and ‘social and economic inequalities’. In recognising that they have been ‘further exacerbated’ by the pandemic, it at least by implication acknowledges that they are not new. What it does not do, however, is make explicit how deeply embedded they are in the power structures of our society which, to be addressed, will require precisely those ‘political’ versions of social action which Step Up to Serve sidelines. Any consideration of these structures is absent, too, from the paper’s discussion of ‘collective action’ for which it sets the important but still limited goals of ‘… connecting organisations, policy-makers and young people’ in order to seek ‘meaningful change’ to ‘culture, policy and practice’. 

For achieving the transition from Step Up to Serve, key proposed #iwill routes for interested organisations are via a new ‘Power of Youth Charter’ – ‘a framework to empower more young people to make a positive difference’; a ‘Power of Youth Index’ to enable organisations to assess how they are doing this ‘by receive(ing) scores to benchmark themselves to others within their sector’; and full use of the #iwill Ambassadors and Champions[38]. To ensure all this is sustained up to 2025, organisations are being sought to take on the roles of ‘lead partner’ hosting an #iwill Co-ordination Hub, including strategy development; ‘Ambassadors and Champions Network Delivery Partner’; and ‘Evidence and Insights Partner’ to include designing and delivering the Power of Youth Index.  

Clearly such arrangements over time promise some essential and potentially valuable operational pay-offs. However, given the pandemic’s extra-‘exacerbated’ impacts on young people, I can’t avoid again ending with some ‘unpacking’-type questions. Such as:

  • Is Step Up to Serve’s non- – indeed anti- -political conception of social action good enough to meet the challenges of whatever ‘new normal’ for young people may emerge?    
  • If not, what can and should social action look like, not least under a government which has begun to set class against racial and gender inequalities and disempowerment?[39]
  • What can and would the processes – including importantly ones that are bottom-up – look like for making any of that real?
  • Where in any of that can and should open youth work processes fit – processes which seek to start from and respond to the starting points of the young people who actually engage; and which, in places and at times over that 100-year history mentioned so proudly by Charlotte Hill, have tried to stay supportive even when these point to ‘political’ forms of ‘social action’?

Questions like these do not, of course, have straightforward ‘answers’. But a more expansive debate within the youth volunteering/social action field around these kinds of challenges, too, would surely be revealing – and very welcome.


  1. ttps:// 
  2. Step Up to Serve Newsletter, 2017, ‘Leaders renew cross-party support for #iwill’, 20 Nov 
  3. Cleverdon, J., and Jordan, A., 2012, In the Service of Others: A vision for youth social action by 2020, December,
  4.  GOV.UK, 2013, ‘Step Up to Serve: making it easier for young people to help others’, 21 November,
  5. #iwill, ‘About us’, http See for example ‘Youth volunteering: the new panacea?’, Youth and Policy, 30 June 2017 hs://, accessed 10 December 2020; Step Up to Serve, 2020, ‘Delivery support functions for #iwill beyond 2020’ 
  6. Step Up to Serve, 2020, ‘Delivery support functions for #iwill beyond 2020: Expressions of Interest Information Document’, October,
  7. See for example Department of Education and Science, 1965, Service by Youth, HMSO
  8. Ian Kirby, 2009, ‘Kids’ charity call-up: Brown planning to force 50 hours work on teens’, News of the World, 12 April 
  9. Ross Watson, 2009, ‘Young people feel conservation work is “slave labour”’, Youth Work News, 14 August
  10. Kirstey Weakley, 2018, ‘How vInspired went from £50m to bust in less than ten years’, Civil Society, 26 November, 
  11.  Joe Lepper, 2010, ‘Government announces £6m teen volunteering pilot’, Youth Work News, 24 March
  12.  Adam Offord, 2016a, ‘“Minister wants ‘full-time volunteering’ for young people”’, CYPN, 15 December
  13.  Steve Holliday, 2018, Independent review of Full-time Social Action, January,,  p 2; Joe Lepper, 2018, ‘“Government rules out full-time social action role for NCS”’, CYPN, 25 July
  14. Danny Kruger, 2020, Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant, September, pp 28, 33,, UK Parliament, 2020, ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’, accessed 29 December 2020, 
  15.  Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Youth services “suffer £1bn funding cuts in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January
  16. Laura McCardle, 2013a, ‘New £2m fund for charities supporting social action projects’, CYPN, 23 October; Laura McCardle, 2013b, ‘Government injects £6m to support youth volunteering’, CYPN, 28 October; GOV.UK, 2014, £11 million funding to boost opportunities for young people’, 19 February, , Jess Brown, 2015, ‘£1.3m youth fund opens for applications, CYPN, 29 July
  17. Neil Puffett, 2013, ‘United by Uniform’, CYPN, 5 March
  18.  Family, Kids and Youth, 2015, Youth Social Action Journey Fund Evaluation Report of Research Results, Youth United, June, 
  19. Adam Offord, 2016b, ‘Youth work roundup: youth group expansion’, CYPN, 9 May
  20. Adam Offord, 2016c, ‘“Youth sports social action programme launches”’, CYPN, 21 April
  21. Joe Lepper, 2016, ‘“Sport England launches £3m youth volunteering fund”’, CYPN, 5 December
  22. Laura McCardle, 2014a, ‘London Mayor launches youth volunteering schemes’, CYPN, 3 June 
  23. Yota Bratsa, Claudia Mollidor, Jane Stevens, 2020, National Youth Social Action Survey 2019: Summary Report, Ipsos MORI, May
  24. Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘Character development scheme targets those at NEET risk’, CYPN, 29 October
  25. Tristan Donovan, 2017, ‘Ministers Urged to Back Full-Time Youth Volunteering’, CYPN, 16 November
  26. WM Enterprise, 2009, Evaluation of V’s Programme, April,—/20090508120100NP812/ 
  27. Laura McCardle, 2014a, ‘London Mayor launches youth volunteering schemes’, CYPN, 3 June
  28. Joe Lepper, 2016, ‘“Sport England launches £3m youth volunteering fund”’, CYPN, 5 December 
  29. Adam Offord, 2015, ‘“NCS under consideration as ‘intervention’ for young offenders’”. CYPN, 24 November
  30. Kate McCann, 2015, ‘Andy Coulson: David Cameron Must Make National Service Compulsory to Curb Extremism and Leave a Legacy’, Daily Telegraph, 13 December 
  32.  Laura McCardle, 2014b, ‘Stepping up for social action’ CYPN, 18 February
  33. IpsosMORI, 2020, National Youth Action Survey;16 November,
  34. Ilana Tyler-Rubinstein, Fiona Vallance, Olivia Michelmore and Julia Pye, 2016, Evaluation of the Unformed Youth Social Action Fund 1: Final Report, Ipsos Mori, October 2016, pp 5, 46  Campaigning in the social action context is always non-political.(46)
  35. Tony Taylor, Paula Connaughton, Tania de St Croix, Bernard Davies and Pauline Grace, 2018, ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Character and Purpose of English Youth Work and Beyond’, in Pam Aldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards and Dana Fusco, The Sage Handbook of Youth Work Practice, Sage, pp 90-1
  36.  James Cathcart, 2020, ‘The power of youth, from silent service to youth voice leadership’, CYPN, 18 February
  37. At
  38. Step Up to Serve, 2020, ‘Delivery support functions for #iwill beyond 2020: Expressions of Interest Information Document’, October
  39.  See Justin Parkinson, 2020, ‘Equality debate can’t be led by fashion, says minister Liz Truss’, BBC News, 17 December,

Bernard Davies January 2021