How to: Recruit student volunteers

How to engage the energy and idealism of students for your good cause.

The UK's 2.4 million students may be cash poor, but the fact that they are also time-, energy- and enthusiasm-rich makes them ripe for recruiting for good causes. However, they can prove a tough target to reach. Here are some insider tips on how to turn undergraduate rags into charitable riches.

1. Choose the timing of your approach carefully.
Freshers' week is the obvious time to launch a recruitment drive, but it may be better to hold your fire. “Students are bombarded by hundreds of people and organisations wanting their time and money, and it can be a little overwhelming,” says Graham Allcott, chief executive of Student Volunteering. "A wet Tuesday afternoon three weeks later is a much better time to have a meaningful conversation about volunteering opportunities. Far more students begin their volunteering in their second year of university than in their first."

Timing major events to avoid exams is also a good tactic, although Allcott cautions against assuming that students will not want to volunteer during exam or holiday periods.

2. Make use of the best points of contact.
The obvious place to start is the National Union of Students. Says a spokesman: "Charities can always come to us for information and advice on the best way to approach students and their local unions.” Details of volunteer co-ordinator staff in local student unions and universities can also be found in the search section on studentvolunteering.org.uk.

"Volunteer co-ordinators can help smaller charities make sure they have the correct procedures in place to host student volunteers, as well as helping to pick the most suitable candidates,” says Allcott.

Former student fundraiser David Wood now works as a community fundraiser for the Meningitis Trust. He often looks to universities’ rag organisations when seeking student volunteers – details of which can be found on the online forum UKRag.net. “Many will have students keen to travel to rattle tins, so if you can offer street collection permits around the country, you could trigger interest," he says.

3. Get your pitch right.
Old-fashioned leafleting at the beginning of the academic year can still play a role, according to Wood, if it is followed up by individual emails and phone calls to those who show a strong interest. The hope is that these select few then spread the word to others. John Kentish, universities network officer for People & Planet, calls such ‘peer to peer’ techniques "the most effective way to pitch to student audiences”.

Ashley Sweetland, director of youth strategy at corporate social responsibility consultancy Corporate Culture, suggests embracing new technology, such as podcasting. However, Allcott warns charities against trying too hard to be 'youth focused' their marketing, because it can appear patronising. “If you want to develop a student-specific focus, ask marketing students to do it for you,” he advises.

4. Give volunteers a rewarding experience.
“Remember that students don't want to make the tea,” says Allcott. “They want to change the world, so show them how their work will make a difference. Think of opportunities that will allow them to take positions of responsibility.”

Students are also frequently looking to boost their CVs and develop their skills by volunteering, so Allcott suggests charities assist them get recognition for their efforts. “Helping them to reflect on what they have learned might give your charity a head start,” he says.

It is also important to offer students a range of volunteering opportunities. According to Wood, "the charities best at dealing with students are those with established programmes that offer various ways to get involved - even if the student has limited time - and respond quickly to enquiries and interest."

5. Think about setting up university bases.
St John Ambulance has done just that, offering first aid training and work at local and social events from units at universities from Brunel to Warwick. The move has been an outstanding success, with 90 per cent of its current student participants being new to the organisation.

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