Put a group of people together in a focus group type situation and ask them to come up with reasons to volunteer. While they may come up with several colourful and inventive reasons, the two most likely to stand out from the list are ‘to increase employability skills’, and ‘to give something back to the community’. These are certainly the primary reasons we include on our website, and other promotional material intended for students.
Understandably, gaining employability skills is a more pressing matter for most students than thinking about how they are benefiting the community. Attending university and holding a degree no longer guarantees you the job of your dreams. Looking around themselves in lectures, students are reminded just how much competition there is in their chosen field for jobs. Add to this the hundreds of lecture halls around the country, and one starts to see the benefits of having placement experience through volunteering.
This is not to say that students are disinterested by the impact their work is having, because this isn’t the case. But it does often come down to the work of staff when promoting the social impact of their volunteers, and telling those warm, fuzzy stories. Basically, ‘you do the work, and we’ll tell your story’.
I’d argue that these two benefits to volunteering shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive, either by university staff or students. The fact of the matter is that while having voluntary experience is a good thing, employers are increasingly expecting to see examples of it, to the point where those with none to speak of, will most likely miss out on being shortlisted for an interview altogether. If ten or more applicants all have voluntary experience, employers will then look to see examples of enthusiasm and dedication to the role. What better way to demonstrate this than by talking at length about how many people benefited from your time as a volunteer? How inciting would it be for employers to see you visibly proud of the work you’ve done and your willingness to keep doing it?
As far as staff are concerned, students gaining employability skills is something they ought to care about. Showcasing the impact your department is having on the local community is wonderful, but if nobody is interested in attending a university with a poor progression record, there will be no department left to tell those stories. What we need is for students and staff members to work together to tell one, all encompassing story.
One way we have sought to do this is to hold more celebratory events, like our upcoming Student Volunteer Week, our Volunteers’ Conference and our CUSU awards ceremony where we will recognise some of the most well-performing students and award them prizes. We intend to invite guest speakers from charities and schools to talk about the work of CUSU volunteers, and generally allow everyone to feel good about themselves for a few hours. After all, it is easy to concentrate on recruiting new volunteers, but showing the appreciation towards our already active volunteers requires a bit more work.
Another way students can be coerced into thinking about all the benefits of volunteering, is by encouraging them to include some of their own reflections about their work into their portfolios. If students can spend 5-10 minutes after each volunteering session, writing about the work they did that day and thinking of all the people whose days have been made a little brighter by their presence, students will be well equipped to blow future employers away, whilst representing their students’ union and the work being done behind the scenes.
But if staff and students are to tell the volunteering story together, they need a bridge in place. This was the reasoning behind setting up our Student Volunteer Team, a group of 10 students tasked with raising the profile of the Volunteering and Employability department, holding promotional events and gathering feedback from active student volunteers. We wanted to create a space in which students can talk to students, and present an all encompassing, representative voice that covers all aspects of student volunteering. Working with the SVT and the wider student volunteer body is an exciting prospect, and we will be a stronger department because of it.
Storytelling is done better when it is done together. With our events calendar fill to the brim for 2014, hopefully we can promote volunteering from a single, unified position, staff and students alike.