The secret to engaging more students in opportunities

Rosie Hunnam is the founder of Organised Fun.

In past Wonkhe blogs I’ve thought about the heritage of student opportunities, community action and volunteering.

It is one of my favourite things to tell people about, particularly how in many cases, student activities are much older than the students’ union that they’re now part of.

Students will come together to “do stuff” whether we help them or not, so our role in students’ unions is to add value.

What can we offer that makes it easier, cheaper, better quality, more inclusive, or even all of the above?

Not so simple

Facilitating student volunteering is often perceived as fairly simplistic – students want to do stuff, we help make it happen, job done.

Those doing it usually feel like it’s one of two things: a runaway train with pieces of track being placed seconds before the train de-rails. Or, some kind of magic that somehow just “happened” and we’re not exactly sure why.

Whilst I certainly don’t want to get rid of the magic, it would be nice to have an efficient rail system that works for all involved. In fact I spend most of my time working with SUs to get the systems in order so that the magic can happen.

Volunteer management provision

The SU sector works with more volunteers than most volunteering charities but we haven’t yet nailed the professionalisation of our volunteer management.

In a recent webinar with Livia from Wonkhe we talked about social capital and how we can encourage students to develop their bridging social capital. As a student opportunities consultant I’m asked almost daily “how can we engage more students”.

Unfortunately if there were a simple answer to share then I’d probably drive myself out of a job. It is not straightforward but there are some simple steps to take to start making moves in the right direction that don’t necessarily involve restructuring your whole union.

By going back to the basics volunteer management we can consider the three central foundations – recruit, retain, reward.

Personally, I like to simplify it a bit. It’s mostly about “getting in” and “staying in”. From here we need to consider what are we doing that works to get people through the door, and how are we encouraging people to stay.

Getting in

We’ve all done it, walked into an event or sports session and immediately regretted it. Perhaps it’s the small groups of people chatting – they look like cliques.

Or maybe it’s that no-one acknowledges you. Have all the others got matching merch and you’re visibly the newbie?

Or worse, perhaps everyone in the room looks and talks differently to you.

We can quickly level up our student group activities if every committee had some great quality training in “customer experience”, getting some clever commercial leader from Apple or Lush to talk us through the welcome they give customers in their stores.

Clearly we are operating in different spheres to massive companies like Lush, and I don’t advocate for treating our student opps members as customers, but there’s something to learn about building positive experience here.

The difference it would make to new club and society members walking in for the first time would be profound if every group had a welcome plan and a new member experience that was considered.

Inclusivity conundrum

From an inclusivity perspective, helping someone to even get to the stage of entering the room can be as simple as giving really clear information about what to expect.

Where’s the session? How do I access the space? What should I wear? How long will I be there? What will we be doing?

These things are essential from a disability access perspective, but also benefit all students by demystifying these spaces helps everyone to feel confident getting through the door.

Ideally we’d also be working with our groups to tackle space and access issues, and training leaders up in current inclusive practices, too.

Staying in

In the world of volunteer management we talk about retaining volunteers and rewarding them. How are we making sure their experience is top notch whilst they’re volunteering and what’s going to make them stay or do it again?

This is where I’ve merged “retaining” with “rewarding” as they’re all part and parcel of the same sorts of things.

This is about making people feel important, part of something, valued, recognised. Staying involved.

Beyond awards

I don’t hate awards ceremonies, they’re fun and students enjoy them. But too often this is the full stop on a student’s volunteer journey.

We wait until they finish to say thank you and well done.How does this incentivise students to continue participating if they don’t feel values until they leave.

I love to see students’ unions organising smaller-scale “thank you” moments across the year, sending personalised messages to student leaders thanking them for particular activities, or celebrating on social media the successes of a student group.

It’s about being timely with your thank you – as close to the activity as possible, whilst the students are still riding high from the buzz of pulling it off.

Reward variation

Reward isn’t just about saying thanks. It’s important to consider what students’ motivation for doing the thing in the first place was, and matching the reward to that motivation.

For example, if you’re a mature student that’s motivated by co-curricular activity, stretching your subject knowledge outside of the core curriculum.

You may have joined your academic society because they do a lecture series with interesting talks, and now I’m the Event Sec organising those talks.

I may not be bothered about attending the annual SU awards or getting a Philosophy Society hoody, but may be more interested in funding to go to a relevant conference instead.

This kind of personalised reward is trickier and less visible than hoodies and balls, but is where we take our volunteer management work up a level.

Planning, planning, planning

Next time you’re having a planning meeting with your opportunities staff and officers, spend 10 minutes thinking about different students who lead your activities. What motivates them to get involved? And, If you don’t know, you definitely should be asking them.

How can this be translated in your rewards programme? What do they get out of the experience, beyond warm fuzzy feelings? SUs are educational charities. All student opportunities should be offering a developmental journey or learning experience.

The reward of putting on a great event or leading a volunteering project in the community is one thing, but for great volunteer management we want to be thinking beyond that, too.

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