Building partnerships with business can enhance a student volunteering provision and demonstrate its significance, increasing the opportunities available to students, your HEI, the community and the business itself. This ensures that the multifaceted nature of student volunteering is recognised and embraced as a key aspect of public engagement activities, creating mutually beneficial partnerships. However, as with any relationship, they take time to develop and rewards are not always instantaneous, but approached effectively they can generate exceptional benefits. The aim of the guide is to help you think about how to initially develop a partnership with a business and think about the possible rewards of this collaboration.
Guidelines and approach
When exploring the possibility of working with business, here this means a profit-making company, it is vital to consider why you want to involve them with your work. The need or pressure to diversify funding and income streams might be a key driver to explore and develop such a partnership, but the in-kind benefits are often equally – if not more - important.
Benefits and Rewards
Student volunteering programmes can access a wealth of benefits as a result of working with business. By capitalising on the skills and expertise of the public sector, you can bring fresh perspectives to your volunteering provision and offer innovative projects, in addition to generating income. These can enhance the profile of your work both internally and externally, appealing to people across the sector, from the students, senior managers and the community.
In particular, working with businesses can offer a range of opportunities for students. Volunteering in partnership with a business can provide opportunities for students to network and present themselves to business partners not only as potential employees with key skills, but also as active citizens with an interest in the community and an understanding of how business can support the community. Additionally, providing students with insights into the business world and broaden ideas for career progression.
Engaging with business through volunteering “..enables students to challenge rather than accept the notion of social responsibility and be the future leaders who develop it rather than maintain it.” Greg Miller, Deputy Head of Access and Community Engagement, University of Leeds
Just as there are numerous benefits for student volunteering services and students, there are many benefits for business. It is invaluable to reference advantages when pitching an idea to senior management and to business, citing any key statistics and successes in these areas. The benefits of partnership to business include:
- Exposure. You can provide cost-effective opportunities for a company to sell their story and brand highlighting their commitment to the community. This is of great appeal to students, who are both potential customers and employees.
- Alignment with company values. Your institution can make community investment activity very easy for the business, including providing volunteering opportunities that their employees can also access, and facilitating introductions to community partners.
- New business opportunities. Being able to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the locality could potential help strengthen bids for local authority contracts. Funding opportunities requiring cross-sector partnership may also be accessible, including significant European funding streams.
- Knowledge Transfer. You can facilitate access to resources, specialism’s and knowledge of the HEI (campus and estates, academics, careers advisors, SMT, students and so forth).
- Benefits for employees. Providing volunteering opportunities for staff can increase morale and improve retention by providing opportunities away from the place of work that can enable employees to engage with a cause that interests them.
- A public relations boost. Supporting student volunteering will certainly look positive to the media and wider community.
"Investing time and resource in supporting the community is the ‘the right thing’ for business to do." Donna Miller, European Human Resources Director, Enterprise Rent-A-Car
Clarity about your context
As a student volunteering practitioner considering working with business, a key starting point is to review the context in which you operate connections with business.
1. Core business?
Have clear objectives about what you want from a partnership and ensure they are aligned to core business. It is easier to put forward a persuasive business case if your partnership proposal is linked to corporate objectives and key pieces of work.
2. What is your department or services’ history of working with business?
Do your research to ensure that you are aware of previous, current and planned activities relating to business engagement within and beyond your department to ensure you are informed. Useful contacts and ideas, as well as information about potential challenges and opportunities, will be generated by undertaking an information gathering exercise. It is also useful to consider other HEIs and their experiences of working with businesses. All of this information is valuable when exploring new partnerships and areas of work, and will help ensure you have consulted with colleagues.
“Check there is not already a high level institutional relationship and, if there is, follow the appropriate channels.” Greg Miller, Deputy Head of Access and Community Engagement, University of Leeds
3. What has been the nature of the business relationships?
A great deal of learning will be gained from such an exploration and this will help you to build up a picture of the risks and benefits of working with business, along with the scale and possibilities of the relationships, the time involved in developing and maintaining partnerships, and the cost involved for business and for you.
Approaching a business partner
"Most events have been done through contacts, so network, network, network. It can be difficult to find the right person, but don’t give up. Clear proposals that explain benefits to the company and the school are very important." Jen Lowthrop, Volunteer Coordinator, London School of Economics and Political Science
- When approaching a business, ensure you have researched the company, including their vision and mission statement, and their work with the community and education. Find out who the appropriate contact person is and approach the work in a professional manner.
- Approach the relationship with a high level clarity and sense of purpose. Be clear about what you can offer through partnership, and articulate convincingly what business could gain from the relationship. Look earlier at the benefits to businesses for help with this.
- Be clear about any proposed arrangements, including exclusivity of sponsorship and partnership, deadlines, budget, resources, evaluation, etc. Be realistic about what you can offer in regards to time and staff resources, and be honest about your limitations. Encourage the company to do the same. It is much easier to address these issues at the start of a partnership than at later intervals, especially if you make unforeseen changes to any agreements.
Planning a Project
Recognise that any partnership will involve challenges along with opportunities, and a flexible and open-minded approach is necessary for a relationship to work. Be aware that you may or may be motivated by different outcomes and that your approaches to capture outcomes may vary (soft outcomes as opposed to number crunching).
Operate with transparency and accessibility throughout the partnership. Establish a main point of contact within the HEI and company. Yet ensure your project is understood by a number of people. This will help to make the partnership more secure, if any difficulties are faced further down the line. Secondly, it helps to develop awareness of your work and greater mix of ideas and skills.
Be clear about the best way for you and the business representative to contact one another (telephone, email, etc.) and the expected practical frequency of contact (a weekly email update, for example). Everyone’s time is very valuable and ongoing, structured communication is necessary to make the relationship work.
Relationship between businesses and student volunteers
The relationship between the business partner and students needs to be managed carefully, particularly when ongoing. At the earliest opportunity provide the student with relevant information and training to ensure students are aware of the importance of the relationship with a company, both for the university and for the student. Just as expectations are managed between volunteer and volunteer-involving organisation, students and work-based learning projects host etc., ensure a comparative level of importance is applied to the relationship between students and businesses where volunteering is concerned.
"Ensure the students understand the need to represent their University appropriately, that they dress appropriately and communicate well at all times. Students should be briefed on business email etiquette to ensure communications are not too informal." Lindsay Gilbert, Tracey Campbell and Emma Richardson, University of Manchester
Establishing what areas of work can and should be evaluated with your partner at the earliest possible opportunity provides greater clarity about what your priorities are and how you can best capture the impact of your work and ensure that you integrate impact measurement. This is invaluable for measuring the benefits for those involved in the partnership and those that have benefitted from it (including volunteers and service users), and will be incredibly useful when exploring the continuation of an existing partnership, approaching other companies about a new partnership, and demonstrating the impact of your work to your senior/line manager. It will also help you personally to reflect on your successes and learning points.
Remember to promote the partnership, your work and successes as often as you can to key stakeholders. Partnership requires effort, but brings many rewards, which should be celebrated and promoted through the HEI and business networks. Work closely with your communications department/team for maximum impact and targeted marketing.
There are a number of ways to approach a partnership, many of which are based on common sense rather than sector knowledge and experience. Here are some key tips and examples of student volunteering partnerships between HEIs and businesses:
- Have a showcasing event of your work inviting lots of businesses; this has been used effectively at the University of Leeds;
- Allow partnerships to develop incrementally, possibly start with inviting a business in an advisory capacity; this has been developed successfully by many Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) teams;
- Hold regular review meetings – this helps to manage expectations, but also builds relationships and helps to fully embed the process in both the company and the University. This has been beneficial in the School of Oriental and African Studies;
- Ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial, setting key objectives for what the students would like to get from the relationship, as well as what the business contacts do too. Make sure that students understand the quality of what they are gaining from the link, both in terms of networks and personal development, as developed through schemes such as the Manchester Leadership Programme.
Other Resources to help you
- Business in the Community Business in the Community works with business to build a sustainable future for people and planet. Many businesses are members, so it is useful to browse their website.
- Higher Education Funding Council for England HEFCE’s work with business and the community is one of the ways in which HEFCE support HE’s contribution to the economy and society.
- LinkedIn is a useful networking tool to find HEI and business contacts.
- Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) is an organisation that nurtures the entrepreneurial skills of university students in a way that is both effective in developing their future careers and meaningful to the community. Many HEIs and businesses are involved with SIFE UK, so visit their website for contacts.
- Volunteering England offers information on volunteering for the public, private and voluntary sector, including student and employee supported volunteering. Volunteering England organise events throughout the year that are useful networking opportunities for education, business and community.