Case Study: Exploring Impacts of Volunteering on University Students in London
- Schools and colleges
- vinspired students
Who: Imperial College, Kingston University, London Metropolitan University, London School of Economics (LSE), Queen Mary, University of London, University College London (UCL), University of Greenwich and Westminster University.
What: A collaborative research project to look at the impact of volunteering upon students in London.
Why: To create a robust set of data collected through a similar methodology, enabling comparisons between universities.
When: Academic session 2009/10 This collaborative research project brought together eight universities across London, to explore the impact of student volunteering on students’ personal development, academic life, clarity and optimism of future career prospective, and finally a range of social and cultural impacts.
An online questionnaire was designed using the Institute for Volunteering Research’s Volunteering Impact Assessment Toolkit. The existing toolkit was modified so that it would be appropriate for use within the Higher Education environment. Group members also gave their input into the design based on their institutions’ annual reporting needs during several planning meetings.
By working across eight universities a larger sample was collected with over 1000 respondents. This aimed to provide researchers and practitioners with a better understanding of student volunteering across the city and how the various ways in which volunteering is supported by universities may impact on the benefits that students report.
Following this research project each university utilised the research findings to lobby for increased or sustained funding for volunteering and consequently have produced separate institutional reports highlighting the benefits of student volunteering.
- To produce a robust data set which would allow for comparisons between different types of institutions
- To develop a more rigorous analysis on claims that volunteering can enhance the student experience, through the pooling of knowledge and skills.
- To contribute to ongoing debates about the value of student volunteering and aim to provide a best practice model for future collaborative research.
What worked well
The research project brought together volunteer managers from each of the eight universities to form a steering group for the study, in addition external expertise from Volunteering England, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and the Institute for Volunteering Research was involved.
Steering group meetings were planned for every phase of the project. Given that there were eight universities involved, it was crucial to revisit the project timeline and milestones at each meeting. The meetings followed the following order:
Meeting 1: Explored project suggestion, reviewed research tools and revised survey questions.
Meeting 2: Review survey questions, explore dissemination plans
Meeting 3: Develop case study templates, exploring reporting within universities – sharing good practice.
Meeting 4: Discuss summary report and structure for final report.
Meeting 5: Discussion of findings and their implications for student volunteering.
Hard work and Leadership
The coordination of this complex city wide project benefitted from strong leadership and team work. While each member of the steering group took ownership of the action points related to their universities, without the time and energy invested by the volunteer manager at Imperial College London, and one or two other team members who took on additional tasks (such as chasing and coordinating responses and investing time to produce research tools, presentations, and writing the final report), it would not have been possible.
Developing a better understanding of student volunteer management, and building capacity for further research
Overall, the survey generated a high response: 1039 students completed the survey with responses ranging from 52 to 229 per institution. Comparison of these across the institutions enabled volunteer managers to look deeper into the implications of the results for their volunteering provisions for students.
In Greenwich University, student volunteering newsletters are being introduced as a result of this research with descriptive quotes from the research becoming useful ‘soundbites’ for these marketing materials.
This research has enabled the universities to identify further research areas. In 2010-11 the London Universities are planning to come together again to explore the outcomes of student volunteering on community groups who involve students.
The final report is to be widely disseminated at conferences and professional networks such as through the network Workers in Student Community Volunteering. Websites, magazines and other networks will be contacted and each university has been allocated dissemination tasks. Along with the report, a presentation and poster template has been created.
Each university will present the final report and also their institutional summaries to senior management for funding. For example, University of Greenwich has used the findings in presentations at its annual Learning and Teaching Conference and placed an article in its University Magazine.
Universities with a focus in the sciences felt the quantitative date was especially useful in supporting their claims about volunteering and that more support should be provided to volunteering units. Statistical data provides ‘hard’ evidence that volunteering units should receive more funding.
Download the Final Report here. (PDF 1.3mb)
What didn't work well
Defining goals and objectives clearly
Designing a research tool as a group presented some significant challenges. Whilst the primary motivation to take part in the collaborative research project was to examine volunteer impact, questions about student satisfaction with volunteering services were also included in the survey. This emerged due to a split between using the survey as an evaluation tool for individual volunteering units and as a wider impact assessment more generally.
Attempting to combine both perspectives affected the length of the survey which was generally recognised as being too long. Whilst student response was still good, a shorter survey may have attracted more to students to complete it.
Time and resource constraints
The research was an additional piece of work for each volunteering unit, which operate with limited staff and busy work schedules. This meant that time to plan and set objectives for the research were limited. With more time and perhaps an additional meeting at an early stage many of the later problems with survey design and disputes over the focus of the survey could have been avoided. Discussion via email is no substitution for face-to-face meetings.
Time and People
The project was an extra commitment for each university taking part, therefore resources were limited. Each volunteering unit had a different staffing structure ranging from one to four staff members, thus being flexible was crucial to the project. The additional support required to complete the final report was offered by UCL, who had a larger staff base and without this it would have been extremely difficult to complete such a large analytical report.
Survey design and distribution
The survey was based on Imperial College’s previous internal survey which had been originally adapted from the Institute for Volunteer Research’s Volunteering Impact Assessment Toolkit so required only a small initial outlay. The online tool Survey Monkey was used to disseminate and analyse the survey, at low cost. The sample was all students signed up with each institution’s volunteering unit so again was easy to target.
Some of the institutions provided incentives for students to complete the survey. Since each university had a different budget incentives varied from winning small cash prizes or book vouchers to iPod Shuffles. A lack of consistency across these may have affected survey response.
- There must be a strong project leader to direct the research and manage the workload of a large team. However if staff in all universities can offer a similar amount of time to the project this would be greatly valued.
- Agree questions that try to cover all institutions’ needs. Be prepared to compromise in the knowledge that the higher the response rate, the greater the validity of the research.
- Be realistic about time and what you are going to look at and try to secure resources for the study.
- Have regular meetings for discussing research plans, setting objectives, monitoring progress and analysis.
- Adapt to any changes that may happen, factor in resource availability at the time.
- Decide from the outset how you plan to use the data, such as producing reports, summaries and presentations to senior management or external bodies.