Vocal for young volunteers: Sophie Livingstone, chief executive, City Year UK

Adam Offord
Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Adam Offord speaks to Sophie Livingstone, chief executive, City Year UK.

Sophie Livingstone says young volunteers want an opportunity to make a difference
Sophie Livingstone says young volunteers want an opportunity to make a difference

Since 2009, Sophie Livingstone has been chief executive of City Year UK, a youth and education charity that offers young people a year of full-time voluntary service in schools through a model that originated in the United States. She is also a co-founder of social action organisation Generation Change.

How many young mentors does City Year currently have?

At the moment we have 135 [mentors aged between 18 and 25] across three cities - London, Birmingham and Manchester - working in 19 partner schools. We are hoping to partner with about five more schools from January in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester so the numbers will increase then.

In terms of young people applying for our programme it is about a three to one ratio of applications to acceptances. Applications are higher in the West Midlands, which has been the case since we established ourselves there [in 2013].

City Year UK started in London in 2011, and has expanded to Birmingham in 2013 and Manchester in 2015 - where next?

It is more important for us to take a regional approach. So we will be focusing on deepening our work in the West Midlands. We are now in Sandwell and we want to expand across the region. We also started in Greater Manchester so we are in both Manchester and Salford already and we want to expand our work across that region.

It makes more sense and fits with the broader evolution agenda and operationally makes things easier because you can centre your operations around one single hub in a region.

If you have a funder turn up and the conditions are right to go into another location, then we would look at it but at the moment we feel there is significant need in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester and we need to make the most of operations there.

What is the key to City Year's success?

It is clear we have something to offer young people here but I also think there is a general trend among millennials to want to give back. We know they are a socially engaged generation and we are providing them with an opportunity to do something different.

We talk about idealism and this culture of giving back. The young people who are participating with City Year are not doing it because they just want to get a job out of it, they are doing it first and foremost because they care and they want to make a difference.

They know it is transactional and they will get something else from it but that is a secondary purpose.

What is your main priority going forward?

My number one priority is getting the law changed because young people giving a full-time year of service at the moment are in "legal limbo". They are counted as not in education, employment or training and they don't get their national insurance contributions covered when they are doing full-time service unlike if they were signing on, doing jury service or caring.

They also get paid expenses, so if during their year of service they are ill for a day, we have to dock their money because they haven't volunteered for that day.

We do our best to help make it work but I think the bigger problem is that legal limbo they are in - they are not counted as employed, retired, unemployed or a student.

So that is my number one priority to get it to the attention of government and get it changed.

You are a co-founder and co-chair of Generation Change - what work is going on there at the moment?

At the heart of Generation Change is this vision of defining what youth social action looks like and specifically high-quality youth social action.

We are working with the Dartington Social Research Unit to develop a quality mark and we have six pilot organisations going through that at the moment. We are reviewing it as it goes on but I think it is a six-month process that started fairly recently.

Our vision for Generation Change is that the quality mark is really what we are about andthat should be something that once we have got it tested and ready that anyone in the sector can be a part of.

Do you support the new £40m #iWill Fund for the Step Up to Serve campaign?

The devil is in the detail so it remains to be seen how they are going to distribute the funding but it is obviously fantastic. I know the people at Step Up to Serve have worked really hard to make sure this funding is available for the broader sector and it is really important that it is.

I have been vocal about the need for funding to grow what programmes are offering if we are going to meet the #iWill campaign targets so it is fantastic that we have got it and we are really looking forward to it.


Sophie Livingstone CV

  • September 2013 - present: co-chair, Generation Change
  • November 2009 - present: chief executive, City Year UK
  • January 2008 - September 2009: deputy chief executive, Private Equality Foundation
  • July 2004 - December 2007: head of policy and communications, The Foyer Federation
  • 2001-2005: public affairs manager, Groundwork
  • 1995-1998: BA Hons History, University of Bristol

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