Tech volunteering - a win win for young people and industry

​Nesta has identified a sweet-spot between the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) benefits of employee volunteering and the commercial imperative to fill the digital skills gap.  In collaboration with the Tech Partnership, and in consultation with many companies and digital learning providers, we have published some guidance for employers thinking about setting up an employee volunteering programme to support young digital skills development. Here we look at some of the ‘gives and gets’.

An estimated 11 million people in the UK are given paid time off to volunteer, which even valued conservatively, constitutes a billion pounds' worth of support to deserving causes. Yet, according to Benefacto, only 17% of it gets used.

This is in contrast to the well publicised benefits of employee volunteering  - with evidence that it can bring a host of benefits to businesses in the form of staff retention and morale, team building, cost effective personal development, community connections, recruitment, and enhanced profile.

Volunteering England suggests that volunteering is good for the individual's health and, according to the American Psychological Association, it could even lengthen your life. And that’s before the social impact of the volunteering activity itself is accounted for. Michael Rake, chairman of BT, described corporate volunteering as a “triple win” - “a win for the community, a win for individuals doing the volunteering and a win for companies”. It hasn't gone unnoticed by the government, whose election policy promised a new law requiring the public sector and companies with more than 250 employees (covering a total of 15 million workers) to offer staff up to three paid days a year for voluntary work.

"(Corporate volunteering is) a win for the community, a win for individuals doing the volunteering and a win for companies",

Michael Rake, Chairman BT

Like the benefits of employee volunteering, the need for people who combine digital skills with business, leadership and communication skills is well known. For example, 1.4 million digital professionals are needed over the next five years in the UK, and 93% of tech firms believe the digital skills gap has a direct negative impact on their business. Digital skills development is increasingly a priority for employer bodies, education communities, national and local government.

Young digital making: a field powered by volunteers

There is a growing movement of organisations (many supported by Nesta) providing extra-curricular opportunities for young people to pick up digital making skills via kits, online tutorials, and after school/weekend workshops. But these organisations are far from being able to meet demand. Our research found that 82% of school age children are interested in digital making, but only one in 60 of these are able to access opportunities to learn outside the classroom. And it's a field powered by volunteers - two thirds of providers are reliant on volunteers to provide their service.  More skills development opportunities for young people therefore requires more volunteers. And businesses feeling the pinch of the digital skills gap are most likely to recognise (and reap) the benefits of this investment in volunteering.  Indeed, one of the 11 recommendations in the recent techUK White paper was to make it easier for the tech industry to volunteer to help address the digital skills challenge - either through sharing skills with young people or inspiring them about digital careers.

So why are less than 1% (Nesta estimate) of tech industry employees volunteering in this way?  

We consulted a range of digital learning providers, and companies who employ digitally skilled staff, to understand what is needed to scale the numbers of volunteers.

The first need identified was for a clarity on the business benefits of deploying staff volunteering time to support young digital skills (over and above the general benefits of employee volunteering).  

We found five key benefits for a business supporting young digital skills development through their employee volunteering:

  1. corporate profile enhancement - building visibility and brand reputation in the digital world

  2. generating customer insight - understanding the post-millennial generation of future customers

  3. developing and motivating existing talent at different stages of their careers

  4. recruiting new digital talent now

  5. inspiring future digital talent ​

The second need identified was for more practical guidance on how employers could convert interest into action - simple "how to get involved" pathways to help companies (particularly resource-pressed SMEs) navigate the right volunteering opportunities for their staff. So the second half of our guide tries to do just that.  

For example, volunteering opportunities can be segmented according to:

  • the age of the children

  • time commitment or expertise required from volunteers

  • type of activity delivered (developing specific digital skills vs volunteering to inspire young people about future digital career paths)

  • and location in or out of the school classroom.  

Our guide includes checklists of key considerations for employers looking to set up their own programme, examples of the main learning providers operating across multiple regions, and case studies of company programmes already supporting young digital development - such as Tech Future Ambassadors funded by Tata Consultancy Services and delivered by the Tech Partnership and STEMNET.  

More to be done

Our materials provide some common messaging around why and how businesses can get involved to encourage young digital making and inspire young people to consider digital careers through volunteering, but we know that more could be done.  

A series of roundtable events held at Nesta identified the following further opportunities:

  • greater volunteering support for digital skills activity targeted specifically at young NEETs, underserved geographies and demographics

  • support for provider capacity to engage and manage the flow (and real overhead cost) of volunteers

  • incentives and recognition for companies and individuals that volunteer in this field

  • raised awareness of available volunteering opportunities - through brokering platforms or comprehensive directories, and  advocacy and campaigning

Nesta has championed people powered services for some time - recognising that citizens working alongside professionals can drive innovation in service delivery across many fields. We hope the strong commercial case for aligning CSR efforts with investment in a future digital workforce is a persuasive ‘win win’ for young people and businesses, with an ROI far beyond the proverbial volunteering fence painting. And we would love your help sharing these resources with interested businesses or digital skills providers.


Sylvia Lowe

Sylvia Lowe

Sylvia Lowe

Director of Brand and Marketing

Sylvia was the Director of Brand and Marketing,  she was responsible for Nesta brand guardianship and telling the Nesta story.

View profile