Skip to main content

BLOG: Something New: Learning from organisations enabling youth social action for the first time


Different types of organisations are enabling youth social action as part of the #iwill Fund – youth social action looks different, and has different benefits in each. This blog by Jenny North of Dartington Service Design Lab shares findings from the #iwill Fund’s recent report into the new directions for youth social action suggested by the #iwill Funded activity.

​The #iwill Fund was set up to support youth social action opportunities: this covers a wide variety of activities, but all seek to achieve a ‘double benefit’ – something valuable for young people, and something valuable for others – whether individuals, communities, places, or wider society. As the #iwill Fund Learning Hub we’ve written a lot about the different types of benefit, or outcomes, that can be delivered through social action.
We’ve also written about the diversity of the organisations backed by the #iwill Fund, including many who are quite new to youth social action. In particular we’ve seen organisations with a traditional focus on youth development and youth work, and organisations with missions not specific to young people or social action, developing new activities.  
We’re interested in the experiences of these organisations – what it takes to get youth social action off the ground, and to do it well – and we’re interested in whether they will sustain this activity into the future. For youth social action to thrive long-term it needs to be enabled beyond the relatively small group of organisations focussed entirely on it.  

So, in March we planned to bring together those enabling youth social action for the first time. The organisations on the programme included NHS Trusts, environmental and sports charities, and youth work charities. For obvious reasons it had to be cancelled – so instead the Learning Hub caried out interviews with the speakers.  Some of what they shared is below, and you can read more in our full report ‘New Directions for Youth Social Action’

  • Organisations developed an understanding of the full effects of youth social action (for young people, for communities, and for the organisation itself) only once they had taken the plunge and began delivery. Some of the expected benefits emerged, but so did others they hadn’t foreseen. This wasn’t just because they were doing something new – but also because the social action, being youth-led, often took different shapes than what had been predicted.

‘Benefits to staff often become more obvious over time – as volunteers take designated roles off their hands. One Trust explained to me that when young people spend 1:1 time with patients, this usually improves a patient’s mood – and then its easier for staff to give medical care. Embedding youth volunteering has been very gradual in some Trust…demonstrating one ward at a time how young people are making a difference.’ Annie Caffyn, Researcher at IVAR (working with NHS Trusts funded by the Pears Foundation & the #iwill Fund)

  • Organisations which were used to working only with adults learned that they couldn’t just slot young people into the same roles – indeed the roles that young people ended up creating couldn’t have been specified in advance. Making space for this youth-led innovation felt challenging but turned out to be part of the value.

‘This initiative has turned the normal ways of working with young people on their head – we’ve created the conditions which allow young people to lead and do as much as they want within the right framework… Young people have led on tree-planting, film making, and designing way markers as well as getting involved in on-site activities such as yoga and bush-craft…we’ve created the parameters for young people to have the ideas about what should happen within the Forest, and [they] put them into action.’ Jules Acton, Ambassador at The Woodland Trust 

  • This flexibility does not mean structure is unimportant – interviewees agreed that it was essential for safeguarding, but also to give organisations confidence as they introduce youth social action. 

‘We had limited experience of working with under-15s – this was a risk for us as we had to adapt more formal volunteer opportunities into shorter, more flexible social actions. Close work with UK Youth and the Scouts has helped us understand the structures we needed to have in place to work with the younger age group. 
The young women are supported by the UK Youth network to understand how they can act in the service of causes they care about, and how that can boost their own wellbeing and resilience. Then they put this into practice through social action opportunities which we enable, but they shape and lead. So it is a structured programme, but the young people determine what is ‘delivered’ at the end.’ Mairi Allen, Head of Youth Engagement at the British Red Cross 

  • Youth work organisations are expert in outcomes for young people, but not in benefits for communities. Investing more effort in this part of their delivery paid off, and this is something funders can support. 

    ‘For example, when working with organisations who support campaigning opportunities, common questions come up – does the campaigning support young people’s personal growth, or is the benefit in developing the next generation of campaigners? For one organisation, they were clear their priority was the latter, so they want to know whether their programme enables young people to step into campaigning roles as they start their careers. That means for them, the community benefit they want to capture and articulate, over the long term, is for those whose lives are hopefully affected by the campaigns.’ Ed Anderton, Director of Practice Development, The Centre for Youth Impact


  • Organisations did not necessarily develop youth social action opportunities as a means to increasing ‘youth voice’ and participation in decision-making within their organisation; however, this has been an effect for some. ‘ 

‘British Blind Sport have been on a journey of realising how youth social action helps them achieve their mission and are now seeking to embed youth voice further in their work and share their learning with the wider sport sector.’ Kristen Natale, Head of Volunteering, Sport England 
That’s made us think about how we can engage young people across all of our work. We’ve really looked at how we ’do’ volunteering and social action through recruitment, training and support from young women’s viewpoints. Mairi Allen, Head of Youth Engagement at the British Red Cross 

The experiences in the report show that youth social action is experienced very differently depending on the organisation enabling it. Creativity and flexibility by staff and young people themselves about the roles young people can play in creating social change has delivered diverse benefits for those we interviewed. It turned out to be not just ‘for’ the young people taking part but for the organisations too – and the impacts they reported were not necessarily predictable.  

This work shows new directions for youth social action that can outlive the #iwill Fund – there are compelling reasons for organisations of all types to think differently about how they work with young people, and how young people work with them.