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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

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10 things I learned about volunteering from a trip to America

This opinion piece is over 7 years old

Louise Macdonald OBE, chief executive of Young Scot discusses the role of youth volunteering following her recent visit to the States with the #iWill social action campaign.

A la Buzzfeed, my top 10 reflections from the #iWill study visit to the USA to look at volunteerism and service. But beware … these are random and each one generates further questions of their own.

1. Context matters … but so does hundreds of years of history. It was striking just how intrinsic the strongly defined roles of Federal, State and City are to every element of policy and decision-making in the US. It means scale and universal models face challenges to thrive, but it is fertile ground for localism and focussing on community priorities.

2. Do bake sales count? Do they do more than raise the dough? A flippant question, but one which kept coming up repeatedly – how do you develop models of service and volunteerism that go beyond “sticking plaster” and really get to the heart of tackling core issues?

3. To mandate or not to mandate ... that is the question. We often encountered examples where “service” and volunteerism is a compulsory part of education for young people in the USA – either a high school or at college. These opened up lots of questions about the effect this has on …

10 things I learned about volunteering from a trip to America

If you’re volunteering outside in Miami in the summer, look out for leaping lizards as well as mosquitoes. Enough said!

Louise Macdonald

4. Motivation. Does the original reason for coming into volunteering or service matter? Whether through compulsion or through passion – does the ROI for both young people and communities justify any means of recruitment?

5. Business does great things, but could it do more? We saw and heard about lots of great CSR programmes, with fantastic and often enviable links with philanthropic members of the business community. Yet no-one yet has cracked the code around how we support young people to articulate their volunteering experience to potential employers in a systematic way.

6. If you’re volunteering outside in Miami in the summer, look out for leaping lizards as well as mosquitoes. Enough said!

7. Inequality. The gaps are wide, as they are here in the UK, but the point I’ve been left with is that it’s almost too easy to think the work you are doing is open to all – when in fact some of the structural barriers are so nuanced it’s hard to see them. It’s the difference between equality, equity and fairness. Beware also the rule of unintended consequences.

8. A sense of agency matters for young people, no matter the context – being able to see how they are contributing, that their voices and ideas are not just being heard but given equal weight in the decision-making and service design process.

9. Measuring what matters, matters … a common theme in the UK, and a common theme in the USA. When it comes to youth volunteering, it’s no different.

10. Learning alongside brilliant people is the best thing you can do as a leader. Diversity of thought; diversity of questioning and diversity of reflection all add up to something wonderful. We instinctively know this to be the case, but sadly it isn’t all that often we get to experience it in real time.

Huge thanks to #iwill and the US Embassy, along with Global Ties US & Miami, for making it happen. But most of all profound thanks to the incredible young people we met, who were so generous, open, thoughtful and passionate – their sense of hope for better, fairer communities through social action is what leaves the indelible mark in my memory.

Louise Macdonald OBE is Chief Executive of Young Scot. Young Scot, along with YouthLink Scotland and Education Scotland, is one of the lead agencies of the #iwill campaign in Scotland.