The School of Philanthropy

Using Student Volunteers Effectively

Photo by Nancy Webber, Indiana University
Photo by Nancy Webber, Indiana University

Nonprofit organizations and college student volunteers are a natural fit. The students get a chance to become more involved in the community and gain hands-on experience, while nonprofits reap the benefits of youthful and often knowledgeable volunteers. But things don’t always go as planned: what if 30 students showed up to volunteer when a nonprofit was expecting two or three?

This real-life scenario is one of many cautionary tales Laura Littlepage heard while conducting a new study about nonprofits’ experiences with student volunteers. A clinical lecturer at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and senior policy analyst at the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Littlepage teamed up with SPEA Assistant Professor Beth Gazley and IUPUI Solution Center Director Teresa A. Bennett on Understanding Community-Based Experiential Learning from a Volunteer Management Capacity Perspective.

Supported by the Center on Philanthropy, the study surveyed nearly 2,000 nonprofit organizations in two Indiana counties with large post-secondary student populations. Its findings yield a better understanding of nonprofits’ general satisfaction with their student volunteers, community capacity to involve more college students, and ways that college administrators and faculty can build stronger relationships with nonprofits in their area.

“Most people think of service learning as a win-win situation, which it can be,” Littlepage says. “This study found that student volunteers need to be managed correctly or they may wind up being more work for the nonprofit than they need to be.”

Whether they are interns, course-based service learners, or volunteers, college students are an important part of many nonprofits’ operations. The study found that two-thirds of the surveyed nonprofits involved students in some capacity, and that groups with education, public/society benefit, and human services missions were most likely to do so.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said their staff was eager to work with students, and 82 percent said student work was as good as the work done by other volunteers. Large percentages said students increased the nonprofit’s visibility in the community and on campus (72 percent and 64 percent, respectively) and had continued to volunteer after the initial commitment ended (67 percent).

“One of the study’s most important findings is that a high percentage of nonprofits do involve students,” Littlepage says. “That says something good about the universities—that they are doing a nice job of involving their students in the community.”

So much so, in fact, that the study found that nonprofits were willing to take on more community volunteers (83 percent), interns (82 percent), and service learners (79 percent) to either some extent or a great extent. According to the study’s authors, the difference in the percentages for community volunteers and service learners suggests that some nonprofits are concerned with their ability to accommodate student learners. These findings have public policy implications, as policymakers seek to build volunteerism by encouraging student engagement.

Despite nonprofits’ overall satisfaction with their student workers, the study found a disconnect between nonprofits and the faculty who assign them students. Only about half of respondents felt informed about the goals of a course before it began and felt faculty members were knowledgeable about their nonprofit. Most tellingly, only 46 percent communicated with supervising faculty during the project. These types of communication breakdowns can lead to student dissatisfaction with the program, misuse of student skills, and additional work for nonprofits.

These issues are easily rectified, Littlepage says. “From the nonprofits’ point of view, the way to improve their service-learning experience is to get more faculty involvement from the beginning,” she says. “Nonprofits would like to see faculty ask their input in curriculum planning and just generally be more involved before the experience starts. Communication is key, and it’s important that it comes from both sides.”

The study identified the following as essential to effective partnerships:

  • Clear and ongoing communication between the nonprofit, faculty, and student
  • Faculty and student understanding of the nonprofit’s mission
  • A good match of students’ skills and the nonprofit’s needs
  • The nonprofit’s understanding of service-learning goals

Littlepage offers another nugget of advice to nonprofits deciding whether and how to engage students: “Don’t be afraid to say no. Tell a professor you can take 5 students but maybe not 30, because you want them all to have a meaningful experience.”

More Info
Contact Laura Littlepage. Read the full report at IU Public Policy Institute Web site.