June 07, 2007

What are the best ways to market volunteering opportunities at my charity to college students?

Q: What are the best ways to market volunteering opportunities at my charity to college students?

A: Start by approaching the heads of career-development centers at colleges in your area, says Mark Valli, president of New Jersey After 3, a nonprofit organization in New Brunswick that finances after-school programs in that state. Come prepared with a written job description that clearly explains what you are looking for from student volunteers, says Mr. Valli, who often recruits from nearby Rutgers University.

"A good relationship with the career-development office staff will likely lead to staff recommending your agency over others that don't take the time to build a relationship," he says.

Next, contact the fraternities and sororities on campus. Keep in mind that most of these groups' meetings occur at night, and be available to attend if they request a presentation, Mr. Valli says.

Form connections with student governments and any community-service programs the academic institution offers as well, suggests Mr. Valli. For instance, many colleges are involved in the Bonner Scholars Program - supported by the Bonner Foundation, in Princeton, N.J. - which provides scholarships to students who are active in charity work. You can find more about the program and see if colleges in your area are participants on the foundation's Web site.

In addition, Mr. Valli recommends calling your state's Commission for National and Community Service to find out about local AmeriCorps programs. "AmeriCorps members are excellent at recruiting college-aged volunteers because many of them are fresh out of college or still enrolled and have good relationships on campus," he says.

And don't forget about contacting the academic departments where students would be most interested in your cause, adds Mr. Valli. For instance, if yours is a health-related charity, seek out public-health or pre-med students. If it is an environmental charity, contact the biology or political-science departments, he says.

That last tactic has worked particularly well for the Redlight Children Campaign, an advocacy group in New York that helps protect young children around the world who are in danger of becoming sexually exploited.

Because of the organization's strong international component, the group often attracts students taking classes in global affairs, says Cortney Rhoads Stapleton, the organization's public-relations director. Ms. Stapleton says that creating relationships with professors can help steer new volunteers to your door. "It is always good to have some members of faculty who are interested in your cause when you are trying to reach college students," she says. "They may have students to recommend to you or they can hand out fliers in their classes."

Once you identify where there is a natural fit between the curriculum and your charity's work, see if those courses offer any affiliated chat rooms, job boards, or other forums where you can post messages, suggests Ms. Stapleton. Be sure to list specific skills that students will garner by working with your charity.

"The more task-oriented you can make the volunteer projects, the better," she says. "While it is good to have volunteers generally helping out, we have found that the best experiences are had when volunteers or interns have a project they are responsible for seeing through."

You might even consider marketing your volunteer jobs as unpaid internships "which can add further legitimacy and structure to the students' experience," says Ms. Stapleton. "While some students choose the charity they volunteer with based on the cause, others will choose based on the skills they will obtain that will help them with their career development."

If all else fails, Mr. Valli recommends arranging with the student-activities office to host a pizza party where students can come learn more about your organization. "You're guaranteed to attract volunteers when pizza's on the table," he says.

For more on getting results from young volunteers, see this Chronicle article.