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Opportunities knock

It is important to create a climate where young people can rise to the many challenges of voluntary work, argues Roger Potter.

That the three main party leaders should turn out to support the ambitious plans of the Prince's Trust Volunteers ("Care or curfew", TES, June 7) indicates how strongly the tide is running in favour of creating volunteering opportunities for young people. Whether the trust and politicians share the same motivation is a matter of debate. Only the unveiling of party manifestos will allow us to judge the political imperatives that underlie their call for young volunteers.

Central to politicians' ideas will be the assumption that volunteering, properly directed and supervised, benefits the volunteer and the recipient of his or her efforts. More important, however, is the belief that widespread involvement in voluntary work will enable young people to counter the malaise of self-centredness and materialism among people of all ages that is so often bemoaned by the press and politicians.

However, if society is to rediscover the notion of giving as well as receiving, of obligation as well as entitlement, it will be important to create a climate within which a broad range of approaches to volunteering can flourish. Not all young people will wish to volunteer for the same length of time or at the same stage in their lives; some will look for residential projects, others will prefer to be based at home; some will be able to make a financial contribution to the projects for which they volunteer, others will not.

It will be crucial to recognise this diversity and to encourage and give recognition to each potential volunteer. Volunteer groups will also need to recognise that volunteering is more important than the organisation through which it is done.

In the absence of any planned nationwide scheme of service, hundreds of volunteer organisations are responding to particular needs, and far more medium to long-term volunteering opportunities already exist than is often recognised. Each group has its own priorities and approach, and none is likely to appeal to every taste.

This profusion of opportunity can be used to argue against the promotion of a national scheme, which advocates a standard approach. Without variety and flexibility, young people will associate volunteering with specific groups or interests to which they neither belong nor subscribe. Overemphasis, for instance, of the laudable wish to involve the disadvantaged or young offenders in community service may discourage from participation those who do not fall into these categories but who might welcome volunteering challenges in a different context.

Potential young volunteers may have difficulty in finding out which of the many opportunities best suit their circumstances. To make this research easier, Youth For Britain, a charity dedicated to encouraging volunteering by 16 to 25-year-olds, has developed a database that holds details of nearly 700 organisations with more than 250,000 annual projects open to this age group.

It is almost literally true that there is something here for everyone: a claim backed by the growing number of schools and groups using the Youth For Britain software, which enables volunteers instantly to match their personal criteria against records on the database.

Together, these organisations form the nucleus of a scheme that would recognise the multiplicity of opportunities available and the need to offer variety to youngsters. It may prove harder and will take longer to put into place such a multi-faceted approach to volunteering than to invent a formulaic scheme that would run the risk of satisfying only a few.

Existing services, extensive as they are, will need to be augmented by new projects developed by public and private sectors as demand for volunteering grows. Inevitably more - it is to be hoped not too much more - regulation and control will be needed.

However, a gradual approach based on variety and flexibility has at least a chance of taking root among the country's 7 million 16 to 25-year-olds, who are more willing to volunteer than is often recognised.

They have much to offer, possess idealism and practical ability, and they want to play a part in shaping the world in which they live. They are more likely to do so if the opportunities that they are offered reflect their needs and enthusiasms than if they feel impelled towards a scheme that compromises such variety.

If ever there was a cause worthy of a cross-party approach within which the practitioners joined in their various ways to promote a common aim, it is surely that of volunteering today by tomorrow's generation.

Roger Potter is the founder and director of Youth For Britain, based at Higher Orchard, Sandford Orcas, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 4RP. Tel and fax: 01963 220036.

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