In the Autumn Term of 2020, our Volunteering Team at UWE Bristol came together with staff from the University of Bristol, University of Bath, and Bath Spa University to run a series of Online Volunteering Q&A sessions.
These were 50-minute sessions run twice a week on Microsoft Teams. We invited staff and volunteers, from local non-profits, to present directly to interested students about their volunteering opportunities and answer students’ questions about getting involved.
1. Setting roles
The collaboration of staff from four universities enabled us to present students with a valuable alternative to volunteering fairs. We shared the time resource and varied skills of the individually small teams – useful since we identified three distinct roles to ideally be performed by three different members of staff.
These roles can be performed by one or two members of staff, but we found that three was the optimum number. These roles could also be shared with students or speakers – hosting might be an interesting opportunity for a student, and if speakers brought more than one representative, monitoring the chat was a natural choice for the one not currently presenting.
2. Platform Choices
We’ll all have our own choices of favoured platforms and there are pros and cons to each choice, though some things to consider are:
3. Topic, Flexibility and Bookings
Our sessions did not ‘gather momentum’ as we had hoped. Promotion is of course more difficult than ever with the loss of physical presence on campus and with students receiving an unprecedented amount of digital communications. We found that we welcomed a steady audience of around 10 students per session, on average.
While some students came to multiple events, they were more likely to choose the one or two sessions which suited their interests the best – understandable when they are already required to access a great deal of online learning content. Because of this, it was worthwhile to make clear what the content and themes would be, and ideally which speakers would be present, at the point of registration and booking, though this did lose us flexibility.
It’s worth considering whether you would prefer your sessions to be more casual events which students might attend regularly without pre-booking (for example a regular Instagram live). These could be more flexible. Alternatively, you could run more focused and/or longer events which are advertised more individually. Your relationships with partner organisations can guide which choice is preferable.
4. Prepare your speakers
In the same way as in-person events, there are more and less effective ways of engaging with students, and we can help prepare our speakers. Some tips we included were:
We also extensively explained the Microsoft Teams platform, its usability, and offered them a run through prior. It’s worth mentioning all universities used the same email templates throughout the term (to communicate with our delegated organisations) to save us all time.
5. Be ready for no shows
Organisations were generally very receptive and interested to take part in the Q&As. A virtual presence, in comparison to an in-person fair, required far less of their staff time and logistics, and meant that they could speak directly to a group of interested students together, as well as creating a recording which could be used later.
Despite this, of course there were times when there are technical issues or staff shortages meaning speakers couldn’t make it, which could happen with or without notice.
Have a plan in place for a speaker no show. We found that students did remain engaged in the session if we explained that the speaker could not make it, and instead took the students through the organisation’s website and/or volunteering opportunities, showed a video or case study quote from a volunteer, and showed what the application process looked like, so it was worthwhile to be prepared for this.
Remember that students may be attending this session as they are very new to volunteering and don’t feel ready or don’t have the knowledge to find their ideal role by searching independently online. A warm demonstration can make the difference and gives the students a place to start.
It's also helpful to have a plan for student no shows. Luckily we did not have any sessions with no student attendees, but it is worth preparing speakers for this if it’s a possibility. The time can still be valuably used to make a recording which students can access later, with staff asking questions.
6. Manage the beginning of the session
Students quickly disengage and may leave an online session if they are not welcomed at the beginning, or if speakers don’t appear, are discussing logistics, or otherwise don’t seem to be ready for student involvement.
Using your platform’s ‘Waiting Room’ function to hold students can be great for managing this, meaning that you can ensure speakers and hosts are ready and expectant at the moment that students arrive.
Some sessions might benefit from a simple activity which begins on or just before the audience entry, for example asking participants to vote in a poll, or write something about themselves in the chat (we asked for university and course, whether students had ever volunteered before, and whether they had heard of the organisation). It’s important that this activity is simple and that new entrants into the session can pick up what they should do, so they don’t feel ‘left behind’.
7. Question time
No one wants to be the first to ask a question! However ‘Question time’ can make for the most engaging content, when speakers are encouraged to move on from prepared content.
It’s a great opportunity for organisations to learn more about students too. Noting down questions to ask is a good role for the session host during the speaker’s presentation. This ensures that staff are ready to ask that first question, and that there are at least one or two questions no matter how many attendees are present. You’re bound to have a range of questions you often hear from your students. If we didn’t receive all the following questions from attendees, we made sure to ask speakers:
8. Follow up
If possible, take attendance at the session so that you can follow up with student participants. We found that many students requested a recording, either because they missed all or part of the session they wanted to attend or because they wanted to refer back.
We arranged a weekly email for any students who had signed up with links to recordings, websites and contact details for the organisations, and references to other organisations they may be interested in.
We also followed up with the organisations after 1 month to find out how their recruitment had been and whether there was anything they would like to change about their messaging or available opportunities.
Many platforms allow you to run polls, and these can be great for immediate feedback questions, for example, ‘Were all your questions answered today?’, ‘Will you make an application to this organisation?’ ‘Do you know where to find more information?’. As the polls are short and easy to fill in, the responses rate is generally much higher than if a feedback survey is sent out.
Like everything in this academic year, the pivot in format has been a learning curve for all involved and there have been some challenges with engagement. However, coming together with staff from other universities enabled all of us to feel more supported, build skills and confidence, share the workload and run a series of events which would not have been possible otherwise.
Links to videos of the events are available on request from firstname.lastname@example.org