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Why volunteering might just get you somewhere you never knew you wanted to go

Posted on 22 Feb 2017

As someone whose job title at Volunteering Matters is Director of Strategy, I wish I could present myself as the embodiment of considered decision making and long term planning. But that would be a stretch, even in an age of post-truth. I’m where I am in life through a combination of opportunities, accidents, a touch of tenacity and a dash of happenstance. With all due respect to my more mission driven friends, I think I’m in the majority; and I’m fine with that.

It also probably explains why I have a less than strategic attitude to the value of volunteering as a student. There are numerous good reasons why any student planning for their future should consider the benefits of volunteering. The skills and experience to be got through volunteering, and the employment networks that it can open up, are massively important – especially for young people from disadvantaged groups. Every young person should have access to these opportunities. If you’re a young person with drive and direction, it’s very likely that volunteering can help get you where you want to go. But my point is that volunteering is equally – or perhaps especially – good for getting you where you never knew you wanted to go. It can open up your world, and show you things about yourself and your community you wouldn’t otherwise have realised.

As a student approaching the end of his studies back in the 1980s I was struggling with the question of “what next?” Professional career advisers were biting their lips and urging me to be practical. Luckily, one of them also recognised that I needed space, stimulation and a fresh adventure. Had I considered becoming a Community Service Volunteer, living away from home to support people and communities? So I became a full time volunteer as part of a programme that Volunteering Matters – the new name for Community Service Volunteers (CSV)- still runs today. For the first six months I was supporting profoundly disabled students to pursue their studies at a school in Edinburgh. Then I was at a supported housing project in Coventry, giving life-skills support to a mix of older people, care leavers and people with a variety of special needs. It changed my view of the world and my place in it; and though it didn’t fix the direction of my life there and then – life’s pinball machine has intervened regularly – it gave me a vision and confidence that have continued to shape my choices.

None of this makes me unique. Speaking to many people who have taken the plunge into volunteering, their story is similar. Very often, they feel more connected and motivated as a result. Evaluation of our programmes at Volunteering Matters shows that at all ages and stages of life, people who volunteer tend to feel less isolated and more confident. For example, 71% of our Lifelines volunteers – older people supporting other older people – say they feel less isolated, and 93% have made new friends. 90% of our Full Time Volunteers said they had more confidence in their abilities after having been on the programme.

So, three cheers for Student Volunteering Week. It’s a great opportunity to raise a cheer for the young people who are giving their time for causes they believe in; to raise another cheer for those who are investing directly in their future careers through their placements; and to raise a final one for the explorers – the young people who want to find their way, and offer a helping hand at the same time. You never know where it might lead.

Paul Buddery

Paul Buddery is Director of Strategy at Volunteering Matters and a former full time volunteer himself.

Categories: Charities, What volunteering means to me