College Volunteers Part 1: Design a Great Project

In college, two of my buddies invented the Third Wave Surf Clinics to build community amongst women. They planned everything, rounded up the people, borrowed boards and wet suits, and handled all the marketing. They were so successful that we had to add a second day.

If your organization could benefit from that kind of passion, you can get starting by designing a great project. Showing up on campus with some cookies, brochures, and pleas for “help” might get you a few warm bodies, but it won’t create the sustainable, powerhouse volunteer corps that you’re dreaming of.

Before you head back to school, ask yourself the basic questions: What do I need done? Why is it important? Sketch out a SMART goal so you know what your expectations are. Once you’re clear about what you need, it’s time to think about what your volunteers need, and craft the project to meet their needs.

Gateway Drugs

We all want volunteers to commit the next five years of their lives to our cause, but that may not be realistic for a student whose entire schedule will change next quarter. That is why I recommend using “Gateway Drugs”. Gateway drugs are short volunteer opportunities (1 day to 6 weeks) that give volunteers a taste of what you do. If you do it well, they will want more.

A GREAT example of the Gateway Drug approach is Girls on the Run of Puget Sound. Every fall and spring, they recruit over 1,000 running buddies who have a very cool, very short-term job: go to one practice, then run a 5k with a girl. It is an AWESOME volunteer experience, but it isn’t Girls on the Run’s only volunteer need. They also need hundreds of coaches who commit to leading practices twice a week for an entire season. Where do they get their coaches? Many come from the ranks of very happy running buddies.

Girls on the Run does not call their Running Buddy program a Gateway Drug (they are much classier than I am), but they have mastered the art of reeling in potential volunteers. So what’s your gateway drug? Brainstorm some short-term opportunities that will win the hearts of your potential volunteers.

Do it in teams

Volunteering in teams does four key things. First, it makes volunteering a fun, social experience. If volunteers are getting their social needs met, they are less likely to skip volunteering for other activities that meet their social needs (like football games, zumba classes, coffee dates, etc…)

Second, It creates peer pressure. Not the bad kind you learned about in school, but the good kind. It’s easier to quit on a distant, faceless volunteer manager than your teammate, sorority sister, or new volunteering buddies.

Third, the work is better. Get five or ten smart, excited people in a room and put them to work. They will feed off each other’s energy and exceed your expectations. Put ten individuals in ten different rooms over the course of the week and they will be bored and lonely and do nothing more than what they are asked.

Finally, if someone does have to drop out of the project when midterms hit, working in a group means there’s backup. Backup means you can let your volunteers keep rolling without butting in or picking up the slack.

Make it meaningful

Maybe you need envelopes stuffed, but nobody likes stuffing envelopes. If you are going to ask volunteers to take on a boring project, pair it with a film screening, panel discussion, or dance party. Millennials/generation Y folks want to feel a connection to a cause. When the activity is boring or administrative, you have to show how it is creating change. And of course, rounding up some refreshments and making it a fun, social event never hurts.

Want to up your game? Rather than throwing a paperwork party, provide student volunteers a significant role in planning the project. Yeah, it’s a bigger risk to provide lose parameters and say “GO!” but when volunteers co-create a project, they are more committed to seeing it through.

These three tips will help you get started planning projects for college student volunteers. Once you have a great project crafted, you need the volunteers to make it happen. Next week, we’ll tackle recruitment and engagement in Part 2: Find Great Volunteers.

Bonus note: I’m excited to reveal the identity of week four’s guest blogger: Breezie O’Neill, Community Development Manager for Girl Scouts of Western Washington! Breezie is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, volunteerism extraordinaire, and excellent human being. Look for her post during Volunteer Week (April 9-16).


14 thoughts on “College Volunteers Part 1: Design a Great Project

  1. Thanks for getting this conversation started, Alison! I think you make some great points and suggestions.
    …but one thing I’d like to see (and maybe you have this planned for upcoming posts) is more about appropriate parameters/preparation for this type of volunteer–how does a staff person appropriately give enough ownership to the volunteer(s) while still ensuring overall goals of the program are met and that success is attainable?

    I find it sometimes challenging to strike that balance of staff control/volunteer freedom–particularly as it relates to the amount of time college students are (not) willing/able to spend in training ahead of time. If I am not able to teach these volunteers A-Z about my program initiatives and mission, it is challenging to expect them to plan a great program that aligns with the bigger goals. Any useful tips on how to give them enough training/direction/support while still allowing them to be creative and excited? 🙂

    • Hi Julia!

      Striking the balance between freedom and control is tough. It’s more of an art than a science, and varies widely depending on your volunteers. I’d say that the key is using those gateway drugs to your advantage: start with something small, see how it goes, and invite volunteers to take on more responsibility as you develop trust and they deepen their knowledge of your organization. Few volunteers will sit through enough training to get the A to Z, but if you ask them to take A through J (with your continued support), do H through R yourself, and have another volunteer group take on S through Z, you’ll have a pretty solid corps of helpers. And of course, go in with your smart goals and expectations clear. You may have some volunteers drop out (mid terms!!) but that’s true of any volunteer demographic (new baby! new job!).

      Also keep a look out for Breezie’s post during volunteer week on how she’s working with college students For Girl Scouts in the Southern Counties. She’s a real pro!!

  2. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a
    friend who was doing a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner
    due to the fact that I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this subject here on your website.

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