As a new academic year begins, the UK's 2.4 million students are ripe for recruiting for good causes.
Traditionally seen as layabouts, radicals or geeks, living on little while piling up debts, students still manage to raise millions for charity, campaign doggedly for causes big and small and volunteer for almost every activity under the sun.
With their higher than average future incomes and relevant skills, this is an increasingly important group for charities to target, especially as their numbers could rise to 3.5 million, given forecasts that 50 per cent of 18-24 year-olds will become students.
Although they're potentially ideal recruits for fundraising, advocacy and support work, students can prove a tough target to reach, needing investment and a long-term strategy.
Ashley Sweetland, at 22 already a volunteering veteran with roles at the UK Youth Parliament, the National Youth Agency and the Russell Commission, recently became director of youth strategy at corporate social responsibility consultancy Corporate Culture. He says that students have little spare cash, but are good sources of time and enthusiasm for a wide range of causes, and usually have an excellent perspective on key issues.
He wants "a real dialogue", calling for charities to go deeper by involving students in decision making. He believes new technology is a "fundamental part of the communications mix. For example, the podcast is the fastest-growing means through which young people receive information."
But Sweetland warns: "The young are the most savvy audience about how they are marketed to, so it is important to be up-front in your approach, offering students new skills, experiences and opportunities in exchange for their time."
One entry point for charities wanting to reach young people in higher and further education is the National Union of Students, which counts most local student unions as members and connects with charities for welfare work or campaigns on issues from mental health to racism and women's rights.
Says a spokesman: "Charities can always come to us for information and advice on, for example, the best way to approach students and their local unions. If the charity's work is a good fit with NUS policy and our campaign priorities, a partnership could be possible."
One national student partnership is with disability charity Scope. This includes promoting better student media coverage of disability, a 'don't diss my ability' campaign by students with disabilities, and encouragement of university accessibility audits.
Charities can choose many ways to structure their student interaction, from a network with its hub at headquarters to the choice of St John Ambulance to set up university and college bases as part of its Links youth programme.
Offering first aid training and work at local and social events, Links units at universities from Brunel to Warwick have proved an outstanding success - 90 per cent of their student participants are new to the organisation.
At Student Volunteering England, statistics flow thick and fast. The National Student Volunteering Survey found more than 42,000 student volunteers giving almost 3.5 million hours - an average of 82 hours each - worth £42m a year.
Graham Allcott, Student Volunteering's chief executive, runs through the basics. "The best way for charities to reach students is to approach the volunteer co-ordinator staff in student unions and universities," he says. "A quick internet trawl or looking at the search section on www.studentvolunteering.org.uk will locate them.
"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. Establishing a good relationship with the volunteer co-ordinator on campus is essential."
Is the traditional freshers' week the best way to reach students? "It is, if done through a volunteer fair organised by the volunteer co-ordinator," says Allcott. "But students are bombarded by hundreds of people and organisations wanting their time and money, and it can be a little overwhelming.
"A wet Tuesday afternoon three weeks later, when there's much less to do, 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 or the busy start and finish of the academic year will help, so next year's National Student Volunteering Week is planned for the week of 26 February to 3 March.
Doing it themselves
The student body has also created or built its own charities, from Student Action for Refugees to environmental group People & Planet, which has more than 50 university groups, from Aberdeen to York and the London School of Economics.
Calling itself "the most vibrant student campaigning network in the UK", much of People & Planet's effort supports existing student groups in recruiting new members during freshers' week and getting them active with campaign workshops.
It also supplies speakers for promotional meetings, materials that can be downloaded from its website, a freshers' week resources pack and a guide to help local organisers get volunteers busy from the first day of term.
Looking to the future, People & Planet's ethical careers service helps students and graduates find work with charities, including advice on volunteering, internships, qualifications and finding useful experience.
John Kentish, universities network officer for People & Planet, says: "The most effective way to pitch to student audiences is 'peer to peer' - that is, encouraging your existing volunteers to tell fellow students about your work.
"Students need to feel they are making a difference, and they need to get something out of it in terms of experience." This requires the hard-working volunteer regional representatives to have "first-class training, proper appraisals and a year's experience of working for a leading NGO".
Kentish adds: "Students are much more likely to get involved in an organisation if they have some ownership of it. This is what distinguishes People & Planet and other student-led organisations. Students elected at our annual forum make up 50 per cent of our management committee, so they have a real say in how the organisation is run."
Allcott of Student Volunteering England says student community action groups registered as charities and run by a committee of students provide experience of leadership and help ensure volunteering opportunities are as student-friendly as possible. "Students can learn about leadership, planning and communication by getting involved in running a student community action group and by liaising with local communities," he says. "It also allows for students to get outside the 'campus bubble', which can be very refreshing."
Someone who has seen the charity-student relationship from both sides is David Wood, who had long experience raising money for good causes as a student and now works as a community fundraiser focused on students for the Meningitis Trust.
"We get going with the start of the academic year, circulating our newsletter and looking to reach students through individual emails and phone contacts," he says. "We develop relationships from there.
"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."
When prospecting for funds, Wood often looks to rag - raising and giving - organisations, which can be found in almost every university and college and can help in a range of ways, from offering an individual grant to appointing a charity of the year.
He cautions: "Every rag is different in its structure, scope and timing and so needs an individual approach." But he offers a useful tip: "One fantastic way to learn about rags and make contact with organisers is the online forum www.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."
That said, Wood advises against the phenomenon of 'megaraids', in which large groups of students descend on a town or city for street collections.
"It can raise a lot of money, that's true, but they are hard to organise well, risk alienating donors and can clash with existing events," he says.
The crown of most successful student rag organisation is claimed by Loughborough University, which raises about £625,000 a year for charities, from Help the Aged to Cancer Research UK and its local hospice.
Colin Govier, the full-time sabbatical chair of its rag committee, says there are no accurate figures for the total annual income of all rags, but thinks it could easily be between £2m and £3m, or even more, because Loughborough and rival Nottingham together bring in more than £1m a year.
As well as running major events, such as Leicestershire's largest annual fireworks display, which attracts 10,000 people, student enthusiasm for fundraising means the rag committee can provide street collectors for any charity almost anywhere in the country. With two of his recent predecessors hired by charities, Govier says: "Rags are changing, becoming more professional and offering those involved a range of skills and experience in fundraising, administration, finance, event management and more. It's no longer the world of cheeky stunts excused by declaring 'we're students and it's all for charity'."
SETTING OUT YOUR STALL
Graham Allcott of Student Volunteering England offers tips on how to attract students to your cause:
- Think of opportunities that will allow students to take positions of responsibility
- Remember that students don't want to make the tea - they want to change the world, so show them how their work will make a difference
- Develop a link with one or two students or a student community action group, then work with them to design a bigger, broader range of opportunities to increase impact
- Take into account that students may not know their new city well, so may need directions and local information
- Help students to get recognition for their volunteering, if required. All students now have to evaluate their skills development, so helping them to reflect on what they have learned might give your charity a head start.
- Assume that students will not want to volunteer during holidays or exam periods
- Palm off all the admin jobs on students: they are looking for meaningful experiences that add to their CVs and develop their skills
- Try too hard to be 'youth focused' in your marketing, because it can appear patronising. If you want to develop a student-specific focus, ask marketing students to do it for you.