Over 2018 Traverse worked on a research project exploring young people’s experiences and attitudes towards taking part in environmental volunteering. Commissioned by Defra, we heard from over 1,100 young people across England, through a series of focus groups and a nationally representative survey of 16-24 years olds. The policy context for this research is the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and its policies to encourage more children and young people to connect with the natural environment and take action to protect and enhance it.

Who is taking part in environmental volunteering?

Our survey of a 1001 young people run by YouGov found that 71% of 16-24-year olds based in England have taken part in some form of volunteering. Of these, 26% or 212 respondents have taken part in environmental volunteering. We found that people from more deprived backgrounds are significantly less likely to have taken part in environmental volunteering, as are those who lacked early and positive experiences outdoors with their families.

 Pathways into volunteering

We found that schools, colleges and universities are playing a pivotal role in encouraging and linking people into environmental volunteering opportunities. However, the nationally representative survey found that the extent to which different education settings are promoting volunteering varies widely. Young people and those involved in delivering environmental volunteering called for a greater emphasis on partnership working across sectors to create improved volunteering pathways for young people. This should include partnerships:

  • Between environmental and non-environmental volunteering organisations – so that young people can move between different options and explore integrated options e.g. performing arts in natural spaces.
  • With youth achievement schemes – so that environmental volunteering options figure more highly when young people are choosing what to do, and there is a better spread of options across England.
  • With employers – so that environmental volunteering gives young people the skills they most need.

What does a ‘good’ environmental volunteering experience look like?

We found that young people have very limited free time and they are focused on maximising the benefits of taking part. They are prepared to shop around for the most rewarding and relevant options. The features of a high-quality volunteering experience was felt to include:

  • A wide range of activities and progression opportunities within any one scheme or project.
  • Flexibility to do one-off activities alongside more regular opportunities.
  • An emphasis on working with young people’s existing skills and interests and giving them leadership roles.
  • Celebration and achievement, e.g. celebration events and offering certificates.

What do young people want from environmental volunteering?

Across the focus groups we learnt that young people are motivated by a desire to develop skills, confidence and knowledge which can support their academic and career paths. When it comes to environmental volunteering, a desire to make a tangible difference is also crucial to attracting and maintaining involvement. Young people also have motivations that are not specifically linked to environmental causes or to the volunteering activity, such as a desire to be outdoors, to have new and exciting experiences and to make new friends. This points to the value of positioning environmental volunteering as a ‘platform’ where young people can flourish and pursue the things that matter to them.

To find out more about our research which has informed how young people are being supported to get involved in the Year of Green Action, visit the Defra website. You can find the report here.


Tim Vanson is a Senior Consultant in Traverse’s Evaluation and Research teams.