Think about the last thing you did to help someone else or the environment. It might be doing the food shop for your elderly neighbour, setting up a change.org petition, or volunteering at the local Park Run on a Saturday. Did you enjoy it? Did you feel it challenged you? Did you see the benefit to others and to yourself? Did you get to make any decisions about it, or take the lead? Did you learn anything from it? Did you get any support from your school, college, university or workplace? Did it make you want to do it again?
If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then according to the #iwill campaign, you’re more likely to have had a high quality social action experience. #iwill is a UK-wide campaign to make social action (practical action in the service of others to create positive change, like volunteering, campaigning, or fundraising) a habit for life among 10-20 year olds. Their goal is based on the premise that if young people have a high quality experience of youth social action, then they’re more likely to want to do it again.
But until recently, we didn’t know for certain that there was any link between quality and habit when it came to social action. So we surveyed over 4,500 young people and conducted 7 in-depth narrative interviews to find out just that. Defining a young person with a habit of social action as someone who has taken part in social action in the past 12 months, and intends to take part again in the next 12 months, we found that young people with a habit of social action were more likely than those without a habit to have had a quality social action experience.#iwill Campaign’s Six Quality Principles – you can view the full info-graphic here
Setting these in the context of a young person’s experiences can help show what these quality principles look like in practice. Let’s take Beth as an example.
When Beth (now 18) was just 10 years old, her mum saw a poster advertising a first aid cadets programme, and took her along. Beth was surprised to find that she absolutely loved it:
You just think, why would a 10 year old want to join a first aid society? And my mum’s like, “Oh no, it’s gonna be absolutely fantastic, you can go”, gives you a friendly nudge. So your 10 year old turns up and goes, “this is not what I planned”, I asked my mum to do dancing or something … But, when you get into it, even at the age of 10, there is so much that you can do.
Fast forward 8 years, and Beth has not only won several awards for the volunteering she’s done, but she has also won a place on a trip to Hong Kong to compete against other first aiders from around the world. She’s been a Brownie leader, a Guide, represented other young people on charity youth boards, volunteered for an orchestra to help young carers learn instruments, and has volunteered at a museum. Throughout all this, we can identify those quality principles in Beth’s experience.
- Challenging and enjoyable, and youth-led: On Brownies, Beth said, “it was a learning curve for me, having to plan my own schedule, provide my own resources, manage a team, at just 17, it was a bit crazy doing A Levels at the same time, but I had such a love for what I was doing, because I love working with youth”.
- Reflective: “I feel like volunteering has developed me such as a person, where you just had to think on your feet … it’s kind of been, it’s very character building, it builds you as a person”.
- Progressive: “as soon as you turn 18, you can’t be a cadet anymore, so, obviously you can help with cadets which is what I do but, there’s a…actually…a university first aid society”.
- Socially impactful: Gained a BTEC in peer education, which meant she could “train to teach others, and I feel like that’s also a very vital skill, because it’s not only just doing first aid, but you’re also teaching others”.
- Embedded: “My uni is very good for volunteering, so we have something called the college cup … you get judged on how much volunteering you do … which is why I actually liked my uni because volunteering is such a core part of it”.
So what does this all mean in practice? For the first time, youth social action providers have evidence that there is a link between the quality principles of social action and a habit. While this doesn’t mean we’re in a position to say that the quality principles are what helps young people develop a habit of social action – further, experimental research would be needed to do that – it provides a good rationale for exploring the connection between quality and habit further. What’s more, we now have a set of questions, tested and refined, to measure the quality of the social action experience, which can be used by anyone with an interest in this area.
The A Habit of Service research project was launched by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and the #iwill campaign on 22nd November.
Emma Taylor Collins is a Research Associate at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
 Pseudonym given to protect identity.