Host a volunteer fair at your college or university
College can be a great time for students to give back to their communities and explore different areas of interest. Learn how one university in England has successfully put variations on this theme into action.
Since 2002, University College London (UCL) has been developing their volunteer program, working with over 350 voluntary and charity organizations across the city to provide volunteer opportunities for interested students. Their annual volunteer fairs were a natural outgrowth of these relationships. In addition to holding a large, general fair each year, UCL also hosts smaller specialty fairs for environmental and LGBTQ organizations, as well as fairs specifically for postgraduates.
How you can do it
Glen Pickard, Volunteering Administrator at UCL, walked us through how they produce all these great volunteering events:
Get administrators on board. Hopefully your administration and other decision-makers already understand the value of volunteering. If that’s not the case, you can share scientific research to back it up. There are publications up and down the Internet that document the benefits; here’s one reputable source.
Decide how you’ll set up the event. Once you get approval, you’ll need to consider where to hold the fair, how many organizations your space can accommodate, and how you’ll arrange the attendees. UCL allots half a large table, poster board, and a welcome pack with sign-up sheets for each organization. As a favor, UCL collects the sheets after the fairs, types up the names and information, and distributes the info back to organizations so they can contact their prospective volunteers.
Consider specialty fairs, in place of or in addition to a general fair. After receiving feedback from students, UCL decided to begin holding speciality fairs in specific subject areas and for specific audiences in order to reach less-represented communities. These events are more intimate and take place in smaller spaces than their larger fairs, so the school is more easily able to provide food and drink to participants. If you’re considering this option, begin by assessing what exactly students think is missing, then program toward that gap.
Find and reach out to organizations. If you don’t already have a database of organizations, research who’s in your area; talking to different departments across campus could be a good start (e.g. career services would know local nonprofits; individual departments might know nonprofits that are connected to their area of study; etc.). Then cast a wide net and invite all the organizations you see fit to attend your fair, highlighting what a great opportunity it would be for them to introduce themselves to your students.
Market your fair to students. Without participants, all the planning in the world won’t matter. So spread the word! UCL markets their fairs on their website, in emails to students, on social media, and with flyers and posters across campus. They also produce a catalogue for each fair that outlines more information about each organization attending and the volunteering roles they have to offer.
To RSVP or not to RSVP? Before you start shouting from the rooftops, weigh the pros and cons of ask students to RSVP ahead of time. Some organizers like to do this to get a rough headcount; others think it discourages attendance by making students feel less spontaneous. If you decide to ask for RSVPs, be sure to include reservation instructions in your communications.
Get ready for the big day. Communicate with the organizations attending as the date approaches, and no more than a week from the event, send them an email with instructions about what to bring, what time to arrive, directions to campus, and any other logistical essentials. It doesn’t hurt to send a reminder to students a week out, too. The day before the event, send out one last message to the organizations to say you’re looking forward to having them, and to students to say you’re looking forward to seeing them!
Continue to improve and expand your offerings. After the event, you’ll want to gather feedback about how it went. UCL holds a focus group each year with students in order to get this feedback, and it has inspired lots of changes, including the specialty fairs. UCL continues to improve their offerings and expand how they serve students, which has meant more student participation.
In 2014, UCL had a total of 2,500 students attending their fairs and registering an interest in at least one opportunity.
Try to get a diverse range of organizations involved—this will draw more attendees.