In 2023, we launched a new volunteering strategy with a challenge to make volunteering for everyone, increasing diversity and reaching out to seldom heard voices. Maria Desborough, our Volunteer coordinator for the Midlands and East, explains how we’ve been engaging with two universities in the region to attract more young people.
Volunteers with Volunteer Coordinator Maria Desborough at the Portrait Benches in Nottingham.
Reaching Out to Universities
Volunteering is at the heart of what we do at Sustrans. It's the driving force behind our mission to make walking, wheeling, and cycling accessible to all.
However, we realised that our volunteer demographic tended to be older, and predominantly male.
In our attempt to make volunteering for everyone, we decided to tap into a younger audience.
Our colleagues in the Behaviour Change and Engagement team already work with schools, so we thought the obvious gap was universities.
Our journey led us to Nottingham and Norwich, two cities with a strong university presence that we already work in as part of our liveable cities and towns work.
We engaged with Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the University of East Anglia (UEA), where we found a new wave of enthusiastic volunteers.
Our approach was simple, but effective.
We tentatively posted two volunteering roles on the portals of NTU and UEA and took the time to attend university events.
Both universities had active volunteering teams, which made it relatively easy to connect and collaborate with them.
The events we attended resulted in sign-ups from young people who were interested in volunteering but preferred a more passive role.
It became apparent that they wanted to participate in pre-organised activities rather than take a proactive approach.
Nandi Maynard (right) has found it valuable to work with existing volunteers.
However, the real breakthrough came when we explored the universities' own online volunteering portals.
Here, we found individuals who were genuinely excited about what Sustrans does and were willing to take on more engaged roles.
Most of these were overseas students, like David and Marvin who have helped us with some of our signage auditing in Nottingham.
This involved them getting online, completing our training and then finding their way around in a city they were brand new to.
Buddying them up with another volunteer definitely helped them to find their feet.
Engaging a New Generation
In Norwich, we encountered Nandi Maynard, an international postgraduate student and aspiring wildlife volunteer.
Initially, our intention was to involve a young person in community-based wildlife volunteering tasks.
However, we quickly learned an important lesson: these volunteers don't belong to us, we are their organisation.
With this perspective in mind, we worked to align Nandi's study ambitions with our organisational goals.
Another valuable lesson we learned was not to keep our star volunteers hidden from other staff members.
Nandi was introduced to Tiffany Lam, Sustrans' Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, at a volunteer celebration event.
This introduction led to a unique opportunity for Nandi to contribute to an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) project, which she could use toward her master’s degree in Climate Change and International Development.
Commenting on her experience, volunteer Nandi said:
"Sustrans is an internationally respected NGO which I have followed very closely.
"Since arriving in the United Kingdom as an international student from The Bahamas in October 2022, I became a volunteer.
"I share Sustrans’ values as I am passionate about people, policy and the environment - towards creating a more sustainable and inclusive future for us all.
"I encourage everyone to get involved; lend your voices, unique experiences and abilities to meaningful and impactful work in your community."
Nandi Maynard on Lakenham Way in Norwich.
One of the key lessons we've learned from this experience is that students are interested in volunteering, but they want it to be easy and accessible.
We've also learned that students are eager to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference.
Nandi's work on the EDI review is a great example of this.
She was able to help Sustrans improve the way we deliver our behaviour change work.
We're excited about the potential of our work with universities to diversify our volunteer reach and engage with a younger audience.
We're still learning, but we're committed to making volunteering as easy and accessible as possible for students.
So, if you're a student who is interested in volunteering with Sustrans, please get in touch.
We have a variety of different roles available, and we're always looking for new volunteers to join our team.