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Wednesday, March 10, 1999 Published at 16:06 GMT


Hands up - volunteering faces arrest

St John volunteers: numbers are slipping

Once they were the pillars of society. But could it be that the "do good" culture which gave us the Scouts, the Boys Brigade and the Red Cross is starting to crumble?

Latest figures from St John Ambulance, which show a drastic fall in the number of cadets signing up, are another reminder of how charities are having to rethink their efforts when it comes to the hardest sell of all: "work for no pay".

It contrasts sharply with a reported increase in the number of people volunteering to get out of their jobs and work abroad.

The findings of a 1997 survey by the Institute of Volunteering Research sent shock-waves through the industry, revealing as it did a crisis in the Good Samaritan spirit of "Thatcher's children".

The poll found that while pensioners were increasingly likely to give their time free to a good cause, at the other end of the age spectrum the opposite was true.

Skills opportunity

"Participation has fallen away among young people," the summary concluded. And among those willing to volunteer, only 10% of 18-24 year olds cited their motivation as a need in the community. A far greater drive was the desire to learn new skills.

"It caused a really big hoo-haa," says Ruth Johnson of the National Centre for Volunteering, which oversaw the research.

[ image: Time for a change - the Scouts are facing a makeover]
Time for a change - the Scouts are facing a makeover
Further research found much of the voluntary sector was out of tune with the lifestyles of the young; its image somewhat geeky.

While the idea of volunteering got a generally good reception from the young, "negative stereotypes persist", the findings reported. Peer pressure, especially among boys, prevented many from getting involved for fear of being labelled "suckers" or "wimps".

Better education about the range of work and its significance, coupled with more positive images, would make volunteering seem "normal and cool". Working for the good of the community was no longer enough - volunteering needed to fulfil the role of work experience. That meant the chance to "learn new skills. . . explore different careers."

Sixteen to 24 year olds were also wary of getting tied-down so voluntary agencies needed to be more flexible in the work and hours they offered.

The messages have got through to some organisations more than others, says Ms Johnson.

Efforts to engage the young

The National Association of Volunteer Bureaux - a parent body for the 400 or so local authority-based voluntary agencies in England - certainly seems to be making the right noises.

Spokesman Andy Forster sees a growing pick and chose lifestyle among the young which makes them that much harder to target.

[ image: Girl Guides can wear jeans and mix and match their uniform]
Girl Guides can wear jeans and mix and match their uniform
"The key issue is finding ways to engage them on their terms," he says. That means answering the "what's in it for me?" question and taking away the "nerdy" image that deters many in their teens and early 20s.

One example is the former Birmingham Volunteer Bureau - recently renamed Birmingham Volunteer Action to give a more dynamic image.

The agency has also had an image make-over, with information leaflets redesigned in funky bright orange, black and white, and organiser Christina Hyland has put a greater emphasis in closing the gap between volunteering and work experience that will look good on a CV.

It's the sort of thing that the Duke of Edinburgh Award does very well. The charity recently recruited an all time high of 98,000 members in a year, aged 14-25. Each must fulfil a "service to the community" section to gain the award at bronze, silver and gold level.

The government's new Millennium Volunteers programme takes a similar approach. It aims to enlist thousands of young volunteers who will qualify for a certificate after 100 hours service in the community.

Elsewhere, groups are ringing the changes to stem the haemorrhage of young members. The Girl Guides recently appointed top public relations firm Bell Pottinger to handle its publicity while the Scouts, which has seen membership drop by 100,000 in the last 10 years, is conducting a full image review under its new director of communications.

[ image: The Red Cross has attempted to boost appeal by drafting in footballer David Ginola]
The Red Cross has attempted to boost appeal by drafting in footballer David Ginola
One aspect that will come under intense scrutiny is the Scout uniform which has changed little since its last major redesign in 1967. It's an area that St John Ambulance, with its outdated serviceman-like uniform, may consider looking at.

It's a similar story with the Boys' Brigade, where membership has slipped by 25,000 in 15 years. Sweatshirts are set to replace sweaters for the boys and a shirt and tie for supervisors.

The British Red Cross is also thinking hard about what its volunteers want to be seen in and has formed a new working group to tackle the issue.

National volunteer unit manager Angela McDonough, admitted that youth membership is "certainly not increasing" and said the Red Cross would be looking at having a style that would make young people feel attractive.

"We have to have something that our volunteers are going to be proud to wear," she said.

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