I have a new friend who is an engineering professor at a local university. He’s been struggling with implementing a new student service program in one of their dorms. He asked for suggestions, so I thought I’d share them with my readers, too.
The Challenge: Building Student Community Service
The university is a small school that recently inaugurated a new dormitory. The idea behind the dorm is to create a strong sense of community and to introduce volunteer service as a community building experience. They have invited local nonprofits to talk about their volunteer opportunities, but students don’t appear interested. They suspect students aren’t responsive because they are so busy (many work jobs and take six courses at a time). They are considering making the service component mandatory.
Six Suggestions to Inspire Student Volunteering
There’s no doubt that starting a volunteer program can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to start or have had limited success. But believe me, it can be done! In fact, according to the latest Volunteering in America report, one in four (26.7%) college students volunteered between 2008 and 2010. And in 2010, 8.3 million charity-minded young people (age 16-24) dedicated 844 million hours of service to communities across the country. That's a signifcant contribution and not too different from the volunteering rates of other age groups (and, in fact, higher than some).
So how do you tap into the passion and energy of youth? Here’s how...
1) Build a Volunteer Program -- Although volunteers work for “free,” volunteer programs aren’t. Marshaling the human potential of volunteers takes infrastructure and planning. Similar to teams of paid staff, volunteers need a human resources system that engages and supports them. A “build it and they will come” approach of merely offering opportunities and calling it a day probably won’t work. For more info on how to set up a volunteer program, check out my eBook The New Volunteer Manager: The First 90 Days. It’s free and will give you step by step instructions on how to get your program going.
2) Involve Students in Planning -- Work with the existing student government or committee. Let them know what you're trying to do, why you think it matters, and how they can help. Everyone, regardless of their age, appreciates being included in the decision-making around activities that might affect them. If the students have a hand in designing how service learning works, they will be more likely to support it, and there won’t be a need to make it mandatory. Also, if they take ownership, they will spread the word and get their friends involved.
3) Tap Directly Into What Motivates Students -- Students are indeed busy people, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have time for volunteering. Consider all of the service hours sororities, fraternities, and service clubs put in across the country each year. It can happen. But, why do students volunteer? I can think of two good reasons -- 1) to gain work experience (check out our college intern Kierra Warren's comments on volunteering, for an example) and 2) to have fun with their friends. So, find opportunities that help students develop skills specific to their field of study. Bill them as “service learning opportunities” and communicate clearly what will be gained (i.e., what will they be able to put on their resume, who will they meet and be able to network with, etc.). If there’s any way to give credit hours for service, make it happen.
4) Get Social -- Use social media and your web page to share photos and videos about service opportunities and the achievements of students. Post before and after pictures, interviews with student volunteers, and kudos from organizations who have benefitted from their help. Work with students to set up a You Tube channel, a Facebook page, and a Flickr account to share what’s going on. To drive traffic, hold polls, contests, and drawings for everyone who contributes comments. Work with your college radio station or newspaper to pump up your vibrant social media service community.
5) Give Schwag -- People like free stuff, especially young people. Give t-shirts, for example, to students after they complete a certain number of hours of service. If you don’t have the budget, see if local businesses, like local radio stations that serve the younger demographic, might sponsor your shirts. To make sure it appeals to young people, hold a student t-shirt design contest and use the winning design for your signature shirt. T-shirts aren’t just a giveaway either; if they’re cool, they can help brand your volunteer program and “service tribe.”
6) Most Important, Make the Heart-to-Heart Connection -- Most people who are lifelong volunteers don’t volunteer because they’re told they have to, they volunteer because they feel strongly about a cause and they want to do something about it. Students are still growing and may not have yet found a cause that resonates with them. Find ways to help their learn about community needs. Share authentic, heartfelt stories (see #4 above) about how people’s lives have been touched by the work of local charities and their volunteers. Rather than have nonprofit staff pitch opportunities, why not have the people who have benefited from nonprofit services share how their lives have changed because of the help of caring people?
I believe that virtually anyone, regarless of age, can get motivated to volunteer given the right circumstances and opportunities. Busy students want a fun environment, where they can hang out with friends and gain career skills and connections. If your volunteer opportunities have those elements, you should be able to make a go of it.
Does anyone else have some good ideas for my friend?