With the maintenance loan for a full-time university student living away from home (outside of London) in 2018-2019 maxing out at £8,700 for the year, students don’t exactly have much money. Indeed, student and young people’s financial engagement with charities is notoriously low, with our recent CAM research showing that only 11% of 16-24 year olds give to charity by direct debit or standing order.
Yet, this type of audience could help in many ways outside of financial support. Engagement with students remains vital for developing a future generation of volunteers, campaigners and donors.
Here are three areas in which charities could improve their student engagement, with examples of where charities do it well.
Students as charity beneficiaries
Students aren’t just potential supporters- they’re also charity beneficiaries too. There are a wide range of issues facing students today, and in recent years there has been growing awareness of mental health issues in particular – yet in-house services often simply aren’t enough.
Local charities often do a great job of attempting to fill this gap. Nightline Association, for example, has a strong presence in many universities, gaining instant recognition through persistent advertising (there’s barely a toilet without a Nightline sticker in my old university town).
But what about other areas within the charity sector? Students’ needs stretch beyond mental health, and university services for these needs are often inadequate - meaning that charities could be filling those gaps. Students may well help fundraise and raise awareness of breast cancer, for example, but are they being engaged as people who live with cancer, or who have loved ones with cancer?
If it seems that students aren’t a worthwhile investment, charities should consider that growing awareness, understanding and affinity within the student population will help to develop a future generation of charity supporters. Those who benefit from charities or feel connected to their causes are more likely to donate, even if it’s later down the line. Our research with the general public shows that 13% of the general public would choose dementia as one of their favourite charitable causes, but this jumps to 34% if an immediate family member has experienced dementia or Alzheimer’s. In fact, my own decision to take a December dip in the Cam to raise funds for a dementia charity last year was directly influenced by seeing my grandad suffer with the disease.
Students as volunteers
Students might not have much money, but they often have time. Add to that the harshness of the job market for recent graduates, and it is little surprise that students are generally keen to find volunteering opportunities.
This doesn’t mean you should be exploiting students through unpaid full-time internships. There are plenty of other ways to offer students experience, such as a once-a-week voluntary commitment – which looks great on a CV too.
Offering some form of training is a great way to help encourage long-term engagement. Training your volunteers to do the job well helps create a sense of purpose, as well as a sustained affinity to your charity. For many students volunteering will be their first proper work experience or similar – which means that the learning opportunities don’t have to be as extensive as they would be for staff in order to be engaging.
Students’ unions or student hubs are a key way in. These services are frequently used by students for advice and information, and are great for signposting areas in which students might want to volunteer. See if you can sign up to one - students will be far more likely to hear about your volunteering opportunities.
Students as campaigners
There is no shortage of students wanting to change the world for the better. Our CAM research with the general public shows that 53% of young people aged 16-24 said they had campaigned on behalf of a charity in the last year (from April, 2018) compared to only 14% of over 65s. Students are often keen members of activist movements and liberation groups, and charities need to capitalise on this drive by showing students that their aims align.
Campaigning groups such as People and Planet do so by integrating students into the heart of their work, as well as providing financial support for university-based campaigns. Whilst charities don’t necessarily need to place students at the heart of their decision-making processes in the way that People and Planet do, there are many ways to involve students in national campaigns or lend support to student-run campaigns. Organising coaches to and from an event, for example, can help to overcome small barriers to engagement, encouraging students to get involved and develop an affinity with your charity.
Supporting student-run campaigns can heighten your visibility in the area and help connect to local issues. These campaigns are far more effective at engaging students than charity campaigns, as they have access to the necessary networks and spaces (such as freshers fairs).
If you’re a charity that doesn’t target students directly, what are you waiting for? Students might not have the fullest pockets, but they certainly have lots to offer.
 Charity Awareness Monitor, August 2017, nfpSynergy. Base 1,000 adults 16+, Britain