Student volunteers make a real difference - harness their enthusiasm
24th March 2017
(C/O the Guardian)
Last year, student volunteers at De Montfort University logged a total of 24,000 hours of volunteering in the last academic year - and it’s our job, in the De Montfort students’ union (DSU) to manage them.
We provide access to hundreds of unique and exciting volunteering opportunities. As well as giving students the chance to volunteer on campus through various student groups, we also have links with more than 300 local organisations – all seeking student volunteers. DSU is one of just six organisations in Leicestershire to be recognised with the prestigious Investing in Volunteers Quality Standard for good practice in volunteer management.
But managing more than 1,650 student volunteers brings its challenges, and we wanted to make sure that we were getting the best out of them that we possibly could. The award involved a rigorous assessment process with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, measuring things such as the extent to which volunteers are involved in decision making and whether there are appropriate staffing resources to volunteers. It meant we had to ensure that we were providing the best possible support for our volunteers, and not just directing them to vacancies.
We believe it is this diligent and conscientious approach to maximising student volunteering that has produced so many of our success stories, such as UniBoob.
Kate Whitfield was a second-year Fine Art student at De Montfort University (DMU) when she found a fibroadenoma – a small lump in her breast. The discovery inspired her to lead the student union’s UniBoob volunteering team, alongside fellow student Ellie Gorski.
The UniBoob team works on the university campus for national breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel!, and is just one of more than 65 such groups across the UK – but it was De Montfort’s volunteers who topped the table for most sign-ups to the charity’s text service in December 2016.
The text service is a free monthly alert reminding those signed up to check their breasts - at Christmas, it even reminded women to check their “Christmas puddings”.
Buoyed by the table-topping success, the UniBoob volunteering group is now looking to build on its good work. Kate and Ellie have found that sports teams are a particularly good way to communicate to a lot of people. .
Here are some of the lessons we at DSU have learned about student volunteer management along the way.
The more training you can provide for volunteers (either at conferences, group sessions or one-on-one), the more volunteers will know what they want to achieve. It’s partly about endowing them with a greater understanding of their individual role in relation to the work that the charity do, but it’s also about recognising that volunteering, particularly for students, is also about continued professional and personal development. Helping them to acquire skills and experience will make them better at their work and more committed to your charity.
Structure and clear expectations make it far easier to obtain higher results from volunteers. Whether they are volunteering as part of a group, leading their own project or simply taking part as a one-off, students need to know what is expected of them. Targets, provided the working environment doesn’t feel punitive, can be particularly motivating: with clear aims, volunteers will often work harder to meet (or exceed) them. This creates a higher satisfaction rate and encourages volunteers to commit long term.
Have clear volunteering policies
Make these clear and accessible! Volunteers need to know their rights. This is the foundation on which they volunteer. Again it’s about managing expectations: the more volunteers understand their role, the more effective they will be within it. It’s where the voluntary sector can learn some good practice from the world of human resources.
Provide resources and guides
These can be anything from basic introductions to your charity, volunteer case studies, “how to” guides, FAQs... If possible, create an area on your website where these are displayed together in one place. This is something that needs to be accessible and user-friendly at any time of the day; it is tough to pinpoint exactly when when volunteers (especially students) might need guidance, so providing a form of 24-hour support can be an incentive when volunteers are considering who to offer their time to.
Empower your volunteers
Volunteers need to feel a sense of ownership over what they are doing. When they feel as if they own a project and are able to shape it in some way, their commitment increases. It can make a real difference with volunteer retention, which means benefits to both the provider and the community they’ve been active in.
Jonathan Whitney works for De Montfort Students’ Union.