How to engage local organisations in student volunteering

Take a second to think about your networks. The chances are if you work with community engagement you will still be thinking of key stakeholders when you’ve finished reading this blog.

As a Volunteering Team Leader at The University of the West of England my role is all about connecting with third sector organisations and being the bridge between them and our institution in order to ensure students are prepared to join the labour market when they graduate.

To support me in my role I am part of the Student Volunteering Network, which is a national peer support network. This means that I have quarterly meetings with University and Student Union staff across the South West of England. These are great places to share ideas and best practice.

Coffee and cake

Whilst at one of these meetings colleagues were sharing ideas around organisation engagement and Plymouth shared their successes with their coffee and cake events. Where local non-profit organisations go to Plymouth SU for a few hours to talk about the world of volunteering and specifically how they can engage more students!

Myself and Charlotte Anderson from Bristol University Students’ Union were both very interested in this idea. We were both looking for more efficient ways to engage local organisations in Bristol in our services.

We decided that two heads are better than one and that we should work together to run an event in Bristol that promotes student volunteering and supports organisations to write volunteering roles specifically with students in mind.

As luck would have it we were asked to support an event run through the Bristol Green Partnership which both our institutions are part of. As a pilot event it worked well, it gave us the opportunity to speak to members of our target audience but we felt it lacked the networking opportunities we were looking for. It was more of an information download for the attendees rather than a tailored approach.

The third sector

At the same time as this event was being planned I was having discussions with local Volunteer Managers on the changes taking place in Bristol’s third sector and the impact that was having on volunteering in the city. Over the past 9 years Bristol Central Government Grant has been reduced by over 78% (Bristol and the SDGs).

And because of this the local Volunteering Centre (which relies heavily on Council funding) had to make some difficult decisions on what to resource. They took the decision to stop running their Volunteer Organisers Forums. This devastated many of us as they were such a useful space to update our knowledge on new policies, best practice in volunteer management and to connect with other organisations for future partnership working. Not to mention the peer support we gained from spending a few hours together every few months.

Bristol prides itself on having a well-connected third sector and we missed the forums!

Charlotte and I met again after the Bristol Green Capital Event to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We both agreed that it saved us masses of time to talk to organisations in a group and then have time for questions but we came back to the question: What is the best way to reach out to 100s of organisations?

Well the answer came in a chance conversation with Duncan from 1625 independent people. “I want to get the Volunteering Organisers Forums started again”. I instantly told him I would be involved and that I thought I knew a few others that might want to be too.

Where we are now

For the past year a small group of people from Bristol’s third sector have volunteered their time to meet and plan Bristol Volunteer Organiser Forums. We approached the local volunteering centre about running the forums ourselves and they were happy for us to continue using their title and agenda and they agreed to promote the events.

Both myself and Charlotte were able to prove the worth of our involvement in supporting the running of the forums to our respective institutions in two main ways. Firstly we share the workload between everyone who has volunteered to run the forums to keep the workload low. Secondly the event attracts around 40 attendees and is designed to have plenty of time for networking so we can talk to organisations about student volunteering.

Two or three of us take the lead for each forum. Those people plan the date and theme and approach one or two external speakers to give their expertise. The speakers are advised to give quite interactive presentations on the chosen topic so that there is plenty of time for individuals to discuss their own barriers and success stories.

The forums last around 3 hours with networking time scheduled in at the beginning and AOB time scheduled at the end to share upcoming events, or training opportunities that others have to promote.

The forums have been a great success and I believe it is because they are built on mutual benefit:

  • The hosts give their spaces for free as they see the value in attending the forums.
  • The attendees sign up to a mailing list and help to spread the word of the forums through their networks and newsletters so we don’t have to pay for marketing.
  • The speakers appreciate the opportunity to publicise the work they do and be advocates for the values of their organisation and service users.

It is great publicity for The University of Bristol and the University of the West of England as people see Charlotte and I working together. And we save so much time making connections and building on relationships at the forums that would take us weeks to see that many people individually.

It’s not a perfectly run series of events but it will continue to evolve with the different hosts and organisers inputting their values and interest.

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