Engaging College Students as Volunteer Leaders


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Welcome to the Volunteer Management online course series, presented to you by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with Hands On Network. Hands On Network is an internationally recognized volunteer management resource developing a new generation of volunteer engagement techniques — tailored to today’s community service organization.

This course, Enagaging College Students as Volunteer Leaders, was developed to help national service programs leverage the tremendous energy and skills of college students to serve as volunteer leaders. It is meant to be a user-friendly resource for building a program that utilizes and supports student volunteer leaders. This course does not prescribe how your program should be structured; it does, however, provide resources you can adapt to meet your local program needs.

Learning Objectives

At the completion of Engaging College Students as Volunteer Leaders you should be able to:

  • Create a student volunteer leader program
  • Recruit and support students
  • Build teams of student leaders
  • Connect service with learning
  • Build students’ skills through service

The course contains action-oriented sections to help you meet these objectives. In addition, several sections of the course include activities and templates to help you apply the content to your program. We hope you thoroughly enjoy this course!

For questions and/or to receive additional volunteer management information or training, please contact Hands On Network at training@HandsOnNetwork.org.

Creating a Student Volunteer Leader Program

The first step in developing a program to leverage the leadership skills of college students is to determine how you will work with them. How can your program and the community benefit from what college students offer? What opportunities will appeal to students’ interests and needs? This section will help you prepare for working with student volunteer leaders.


In this section we discuss:

  • Making a commitment to student volunteer leadership
  • Assessing your program’s needs
  • Structuring meaningful volunteer leadership opportunities for students
  • Connecting with a local campus

Let us begin by examining how you can structure your student volunteer leader program...

Making a Commitment

A 2006 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that 3.3 million college students volunteered in 2005. The Corporation worked with other federal agencies, colleges and universities, higher education and student associations, and nonprofit organizations to increase the number of college students volunteering each year to reach 5 million by 2010.

Student Volunteer Leaders

As national service programs continually seek to expand their efforts by leveraging additional volunteers within the communities they serve, one avenue of increasing capacity is to tap college and university students as volunteer leaders to plan projects and engage other students in meaningful service. What is a student volunteer leader (SVL)? A SVL is someone who...

  • Takes charge of a project by coordinating it and being accountable for its successful completion
  • Organizes, leads, and inspires a group of volunteers before, during, and after the project
  • Communicates the details of the project and serves as a resource for other campus and community volunteers
  • May initiate new projects
  • Represents the national service program to other volunteers on campus and in the community

College students have energy, ideas, skills, and an interest in being involved in their community. Your local campus is full of potential leaders who can greatly expand your program’s capacity.

Investments and Benefits

Involving college and university students in any organization takes a great deal of investment. Many organizations question whether investing in college students is a worthy use of their resources. Utilizing the college-aged demographic for engagement in community service can produce high impact results given its unique characteristics. Trends are already demonstrating that millions of students volunteer while attending college and millions more are ready to get involved. The growth rate of college-student volunteering is twice the rate of all adult volunteering. The projected number of students enrolled in the nation’s universities and colleges this year is at 18 million. That is 12.8 million more than 20 years ago, and the numbers are still rising. Networking between university campuses and nonprofit organizations is a perfect combination for high impact within the community and an excellent reason to invest in college students. Sources: Corporation for National and Community Service and Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2008.

Why does this demographic have the potential for such high impact?

  • College students have more time to volunteer than other age demographics
  • Universities promote a culture of commitment to community service
  • Volunteering at a young age is a strong predictor of future volunteering
  • Universities offer incentives for volunteering such as credit and tuition reimbursement
  • College-aged students are in a stage of “self exploration” where they are more open to new experiences and opportunities for personal growth
  • Community service offers experience highly desired for student resumes
  • University campuses have excellent resources to share with outside organizations

Making the Commitment

Before you can begin recruiting college students, you first need to ensure you have an organizational commitment to student volunteer leadership:

  • Make sure that staff at all levels of the program are prepared to support student volunteer leaders (or SVLs), from recruitment and training to placement and recognition
  • Prepare staff to respond knowledgeably to students interested in serving as volunteer leaders
  • Ensure that policies and procedures are in place to effectively manage an SVL program
  • Make an organizational commitment to expanding students’ capacity

Assessing Your Program's Needs

Once you have made a commitment to student volunteer leadership, you need to develop a framework for how the SVLs will fit into your national service program. Determining your program’s needs is a crucial step. As you define your volunteer engagement goals and objectives, consider your current program, how you want to expand your work, and how you can utilize volunteers in leadership positions.

Take time to think about these questions:

  • What are the goals of our national service program?
  • Are we able to meet those goals with our current staff capacity? Why or why not?
  • How do we want to expand the work we do in the community?
  • What types of volunteer projects do we want to undertake?
  • How can SVLs help us enhance our current work, take on new projects, and accomplish our goals?
  • What specific needs do we have that students can fulfill?
  • Can we offer a unique experience, something different from what is already offered on campus?

Define Clear Goals for SVLs

It is important to define clear goals and objectives for your SVL program. Equally important, your national service program must have the capacity (e.g., supervision, space) to support SVLs. Conducting a needs analysis will help you determine where leaders can be used most productively.

Click the link to download a Student Volunteer Leader Needs Assessment Worksheet you can use to assess your program's needs and define clear goals for utilizing student volunteer leaders in your national service program: SVLNeedsAssessmentWorksheet.pdf

Defining Major Needs

In your assessment process, outline specific program needs, the tasks involved, and the necessary support. Once you have identified the major needs, answer the following questions:

  • Is the need genuine or contrived?
  • Can we provide the essential support?
  • Will the benefits be worth the investment to train and support the SVL?
  • Would a student volunteer leader want to perform these tasks?

When you have reflected on these points, you can then begin to construct meaningful student volunteer leadership opportunities.

Structuring Meaningful Opportunities

Once you know your program’s needs in terms of project leaders, begin to construct volunteer leadership roles that will appeal to and be meaningful for college students. College is a busy time — students are learning and developing skills for the future, and their volunteer experiences should match that goal.

Meaningful Student Volunteer Leader Positions

When creating an “ideal” student volunteer leader position, keep these things in mind:

  • Offer students an opportunity that will actually mean something and make an impact on the community. Even with those tasks that may not be “glamorous” on the surface, find a way to make the tasks more meaningful. Be prepared to offer some unique assignments that will fit into the organization’s needs and help the student see the value of his service. Student volunteer leaders have much to offer, so take the time to create roles that make the most of their skills.
  • Provide opportunities that students can quickly relate to, such as local community issues, international issues or movements, or academic areas of interest.
  • Present opportunities for students to hold real responsibility, grow their leadership abilities, and develop personal and professional skills.
  • Create opportunities that are ambitious, but not intimidating. The goal is to engage students in meaningful ways that can truly make an impact, not overwhelm them by trying to tackle too much at once. If a leader is successful in one project, she will most likely return to lead another volunteer effort.
  • Provide a collaborative setting. When you are working with the "millenial" generation, remember that students in this age group tend to require more supervision and direction, but they are very community-oriented and generally enjoy group work.

Volunteer Position Descriptions

A volunteer position description outlines the responsibilities, support, and benefits of specific volunteer opportunities. It should include the following components:

Title – Provide a descriptive title that gives the volunteer a sense of identity. This will also help program staff and other volunteers understand the assigned role.

Purpose/objective – Use no more than two sentences to describe the specific purpose of the position. If possible, state the purpose in relation to the nonprofit’s mission and goals.

Location – Describe where the person will be working.

Key responsibilities – List the position’s major responsibilities. Clearly define what the volunteer is expected to do as part of this assignment.

Qualifications – Clearly list education, experience, knowledge, skills, and age requirements. Also note if the opportunity is accessible to people with disabilities. If a background check is required, it should be indicated here.

Time commitment – Note the length of the assignment, hours per week, and/or other special requirements.

Training/support provided – Define the nature and length of all general and position-specific training required for the assignment. Also list resources and other support available to the volunteer.

Benefits – Describe benefits available to the volunteer, such as lunch, T-shirt, development opportunities.

Volunteer supervisor and contact information – List the name and contact information for the staff person or volunteer leader who will be working most directly with the volunteer.

Remember that the role of a student volunteer leader involves broader responsibility and ownership in addition to specific tasks. The position description should reflect the depth of a project leader’s role. Additionally, position descriptions should be flexible to meet the talents and interests of students. You may find that you need to modify position descriptions after talking with schools or community agencies and assessing their needs and interests.

Using Volunteer Position Descriptions

The volunteer position description clearly outlines what students will do as volunteer leaders, the skills required, and the support and benefits they will receive. You may also choose to develop a volunteer position description to define the role of the project leader.

Click the link to download a volunteer position description worksheet that you can adapt and utilize for your own program. VolunteerPositionDescription.pdf

Once you have created a volunteer position description for student volunteer leaders serving your program, you can begin to connect with local campuses.

Connecting with a Campus

When you feel confident that your program is ready to engage college students as volunteer leaders, you can begin to identify the best avenues for establishing a relationship with a local college, university, or technical school.

Initial Point of Contact

The entire process of establishing the relationship will vary from school to school. You may talk first with a student who expresses an interest in having the initiative at his/her college; or you may speak with a professor who likes the idea but recognizes the bureaucracy involved in beginning an official connection between your program and the school. Your conversations may end with a service fraternity that wants to spearhead the movement, or you may end up working with a dean's office or the service-learning department. The important thing is to persevere until you speak with a person, group, or department with whom you can build a strong partnership.

Ideas for Building Partnerships

Consider the following questions when thinking about how to build partnerships with your college campus:

Marketing/Recruitment: Whom should I contact about marketing the SVL program on campus? What is his/her contact information? Can I post fliers on campus? Where? Where can I set up a table on campus? What other marketing techniques work well with students on this campus? Are there any upcoming events where I could market the program? Is this program appealing? What aspects should be emphasized in our marketing?

Campus Contacts: What departments on campus would you suggest contacting about this initiative (e.g., student activities, residence life, sociology/education/ psychology departments, other)? Whom should I contact in that department? Do you have a volunteer/service-learning office or department? If so, who is the contact there?

Summer Continuance/Annual Day of Service: What is the student presence on campus during summer? Would your campus likely participate in a large, multi-campus event once during the school year (e.g., Martin Luther King Day of Service, Earth Day, or Make a Difference Day)? Who might be available in the summer to collaborate on planning this event?

Senior Week Event: What is the campus schedule for senior week commencement activities? Would the campus be willing to collaborate with our program to plan a service event during the senior week activities? Would your students be willing to participate in a volunteer event in conjunction with more typical senior week activities?

Student Contacts: What individuals or groups on campus should I contact about this initiative (e.g., student body/government, community service groups, honor/academic groups, fraternities, sororities, sports teams, clubs, leadership groups, residence hall association, others)? What is their contact information?

Questions for Prospective Campus Partners

Download the following list of questions to help guide your conversations with campus contacts. You may want to adapt the questions to fit your program, the campus, or other factors that can affect your SVL program. QuestionsforCampuses.pdf


College students can greatly increase your program's capacity as they plan a project and lead other volunteers from their campus or the broader community. Structure your program to make the most of students' skills and to provide meaningful leadership opportunities for them; then connect with a local college, university, or technical school to build the connections necessary for your program to succeed.

In this section you have learned to:

  • Make a commitment to student volunteer leadership
  • Assess your program's needs
  • Structure meaningful volunteer leadership opportunities for students
  • Connect with a local campus

In the next section, we will explore recruiting student volunteer leaders.

Recruiting Student Volunteer Leaders

Students have a desire to understand the impact of their service and leadership. By offering meaningful leadership opportunities and utilizing an effective marketing and recruitment strategy, you can recruit talented and dedicated student volunteer leaders.


In this section you will discover recruiting tips for your local campus(es), including:

  • Planning for recruitment
  • Employing multi-faceted recruitment
  • Utilizing your existing resources
  • Leveraging "viral marketing"
  • Finalizing your strategy

Planning for Recruitment

Now that you have a plan for how you can leverage student volunteer leaders, work with your campus contact to begin developing ideas for recruiting students.

Identify students who might be interested in the position. Think about the many different types of students on campus. Who would be interested in serving as a volunteer leader? Since these volunteer positions involve greater responsibility and ownership, consider how to recruit people with the necessary leadership potential. Think about students with particular skill sets or students from certain areas of academic interest or expertise.

Streamline your recruitment message. College students are bombarded with information every day. How can you best market your volunteer opportunities in a way that conveys the most information in the most concise way possible? Always remember to make your mission clear from the outset.

Create a solid recruitment plan. Working with your partners on campus, identify ways to reach the students you want to recruit as volunteers. Be as visible as possible, and make the information as accessible as possible. Many groups and organizations are advertising and recruiting on campus; thus, any recruitment efforts should be engaging, well organized, and professionally presented, which assures students of the legitimacy of the efforts.

Understand your target audience. College and university students are capable of becoming quickly engaged in an issue topic, but might not have enough information about the subject. Be able to explain to them why the service they will be doing is important and be prepared with facts and research. In addition, be prepared to help them recognize skill sets they may not have previously thought appropriate for application in service initiatives.

Help college students connect their service to something larger. Have available a multitude of information and research about the issue their service will be addressing, and ensure that it covers how the issue is relevant locally as well as on a larger scale, even internationally. Connect with departments and professors on campus and work with them on how to bring the service philosophy to the broader scale through academia.

Show students how they will benefit. Students want to know how they can benefit from an activity like this. You can highlight things such as building their resumes, getting great experience in leadership (and possibly for their majors and future careers), meeting awesome people, having fun, and being involved.

When is the best time to recruit college students as volunteers? Often the best time to recruit students is at the beginning of a new quarter or semester. Work with your campus contact, and research the school’s academic and events calendar, to find the best time to market your volunteer opportunities.

Click the link to download the Student Recruitment Plan, an activity to help guide your recruitment efforts. SVLRecruitmentPlan.pdf

Multi-faceted Recruitment & Utilizing Your Resources

Employing Multi-faceted Recruitment

Students will volunteer for a variety of reasons. Some want to volunteer for a specific cause, while others want to make a difference in whatever way they can. SVLs may sign on because of the opportunities to develop skills and build their resumes, or they may see this as their opportunity to leave a legacy in their community.

Because students’ reasons for volunteering are as diverse as the students themselves, you need to create a marketing and recruitment plan that will appeal to many types of individuals. Think creatively about how you can best reach the students you want to engage as volunteer leaders.

Utilizing Your Resources

One of your most effective recruitment techniques is to use the resources you already have. Tap into your own networks of personal and professional contacts to determine:

  • Do you already have a connection with students on campus?
  • Does your organization currently utilize students, faculty, staff, or alumni as volunteers or on the board?
  • Do you have a friend or family member currently connected to the college in some way?

Additionally, work with your colleagues and the national service members who are serving with your organization to leverage their campus connections.

Leveraging Viral Marketing

What Is "Viral Marketing?"

Viral marketing is a technique that leverages people to spread a marketing message to others, creating potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.

Viral marketing relies on effective yet approachable communication. Students are bombarded with messaging every day from all sides, and thus they are most likely to pay attention to information that reaches them through the sources they regularly access and trust.

Consider these tips for using viral marketing to recruit SVLs on a college campus:

  • Tap into existing networks on campus, such as clubs, fraternities/sororities, academic departments, or the volunteer/service-learning office.
  • Use word-of-mouth. Once you have a core group of volunteers or student volunteer leaders, they will be your best advertisement to recruit more students. They can spread the word faster through their networks than you can from a single point of entry on campus.
  • Utilize more online and fewer printed materials. Online social networking sites, such as Facebook, are popular among students and are now mainstream marketing techniques. These sites are a free means of spreading information. Online calendars, blogs, and article submission to online newsletters and electronic news sources are also effective means of paperless marketing and communication.
  • Highlight the benefits of service in a way that taps into students’ motivations, so they are more inclined to spread the word.

For Example: Using Blogs and Discussion Boards for Recruitment

Students will reply to blogs or posts with their own questions, answers, and opinions. In addition, they are more likely to continue to communicate with these vehicles after they’ve already become involved, thus increasing your chances of new recruitment and retention. An added advantage of is that students are likely to trust each other as much, if not more, than they are an outside source.

Once you have explored all the marketing and recruitment techniques you will utilize for your recruitment plan, you can finalize your strategy and get busy recruiting.

Finalizing Your Strategy

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]To finalize your recruitment strategy, think about all the options available to you and decide which one(s) will help you to recruit the student volunteer leaders you need. To create a viable recruitment strategy, consider the logistics involved with the places, people, methods, and tools you plan to use.

Logistics to Consider

The following terms explore logistical considerations for finalizing your recruitment strategy:

Capacity: How many people will be recruiting? Just you? Other volunteers? Do you have a recruitment budget? If so, what is it? What is your time frame? How long do you have to achieve your recruitment goals?

Physical Details: What are the logistics of the campus? Do most people live on campus or nearby, or do the majority of students commute? Is your campus located near or within a community where many students spend time between or after classes? Where are your target students most likely to be found on campus? Note the academic departmental buildings, the club or organization locations, and venues where these students are likely to congregate.

Rules and Regulations: Where can you table? Where can you post physical fliers, posters, etc.? Where can you physically stand and hand out fliers? What are the newspaper, e-mail, and community calendar deadlines and submission rules?

Campus Community Details: Is there a campus calendar posted online or in the student center? Does it include details of major events or club activity events? Is there a Student Activities/Clubs/Organizations department on campus? Is there a website? Do the departments or clubs you’ve already highlighted above have websites, newsletters, or meetings that you know of? Who are some of the obvious leaders — student or faculty — who represent or interact heavily with the student groups you already identified above?


Recruiting the right student volunteer leaders will greatly contribute to the success of your volunteer efforts. Use a variety of recruitment techniques, especially viral marketing, to reach a diverse group of students to serve as volunteer leaders.

This section has enabled you to:

  • Plan for recruitment
  • Employ multi-faceted recruitment
  • Utilize your existing resources
  • Leverage viral marketing
  • Finalize your strategy

In the next section we explore the importance of teambuilding with students.

Building Teams of Student Volunteer Leaders

Engaging student volunteer leaders is a perfect opportunity to bring together a variety of students with myriad skills and interests. A team-based approach works well with students because it gives volunteers and volunteer leaders the chance to work with people outside their normal groups or teams. They can serve with students from other clubs, academic areas, or even other colleges and universities.


This section will provide an overview of group process and how to build teams to work effectively together, including:

  • Understanding group process
  • Creating effective teams
  • Adapting the dynamics of existing teams
  • Facilitating effective teambuilding


Understanding Group Process

In 1965, psychologist B. W. Tuchman identified four stages of group process:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

Over the years, the stages have been expanded to include transforming or adjourning.

Stages of Group Process

1. Forming: In this initial phase while teams are forming, students will meet each other and get a feel for what they can expect from their colleagues. Team leaders should allow ample time for students to interact socially; be clear and honest about the team’s purpose; foster connections among team members; and avoid excessive focus on the team’s core task.

2. Storming: During this time of self-categorization and evaluation, informal team leaders will emerge and the team will show signs of interpersonal conflict and task conflict. Team leaders should serve as a “safe harbor” to help give direction to the group; continue to engage members who may be on the periphery; maintain tolerance for debate and disagreements while resolving potentially damaging conflicts; and make the most of the last opportunity to make fundamental changes in team dynamics.

3. Norming: In this phase the team will establish group norms and develop coping strategies to deal with future conflicts. Team leaders should encourage consensual solutions; give honest feedback on team member development; identify ways to empower peripheral team members; and be patient.

4. Performing: Teams in this phase exhibit a strong sense of purpose and identity without falling prey to common problems such as bickering or communication breakdowns. Team leaders should continue to challenge the group by serving as a mirror for them to evaluate their achievements; reinforce good behavior without crowding the team; empower team members but allow them to be independent in their productivity.

5. Transforming: In this phase the team’s purpose is coming to an end and, as members begin to feel a sense of loss of intimacy with each other, some may deny the group’s successes, flounder, or detach from the group as blame and withdrawal cause a breakdown in skills and communication. Team leaders should continue to coach and support members; focus on the positive by reiterating accomplishments; recognize students for their work and encourage them to recognize others; create formal or symbolic gestures of appreciation; and provide action plans and talk about transitions and closure.

It is important to note that not all teams will move through the stages in a linear fashion. However, a team leader who can identify the stages and respond accordingly will help the team move toward success at every stage. Also remember that these stages will be more evident in teams that are together for longer periods of time.

Creating Group Culture

When working with a diverse group of volunteers, it is important to create a sort of culture of the group that will quickly differentiate the group from other groups the members may be a part of.

Group Roles and Responsibilities

Creating group culture involves quickly outlining the roles and responsibilities of the group, and, as a leader, what your expectations and goals are. Encourage the group to determine what goals and expectations they have for themselves that can fit in line with the greater group purpose (make new friends, gain experiences, etc.).

Building Teams Where They Don't Exist

As you build your student volunteer leader program, you may create teams from students who normally would not interact or work together. They may be from different academic departments, different fraternities/sororities, or even different campuses. Create a group culture that team members can easily describe to others.

When working with these teams, it’s important to help students get to know one another and move successfully through the stages of group process. Build a team culture that is identifiable and easily explained to those outside the team. For example:

"Although we are a team of students of different ages and with different academic focuses, we have all come together because we are the Middleton University college team at the Family Resource Shelter and Food Pantry, and for the spring semester we will be serving as regular volunteer staff and assisting the VP of special events with the annual fundraiser."
-- Student Volunteer Team Leader

Adapting Dynamics Within Existing Teams

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Another great source of volunteers and volunteer leaders are pre-existing groups. You may find these with clubs, departments, residence halls, or other established teams.

For example: You may recruit entirely from a fraternity that has decided to make working for your organization its service focus for the academic year. This type of team can be much more difficult to lead, because it will be important to redefine the focus of the team, as well as the team roles and leadership structure.

As with all newly formed teams, existing teams will go through the stages of group process; however, you should be aware of potentially greater challenges.

Create New Group Norms

You may need to play a greater role in facilitating the process of breaking down old standards of leadership, creating new group norms, and establishing new methods for communication that the group can agree on.

Facilitating Effective Teambuilding

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Teambuilding for Student Volunteers

Most college students are still young, but struggling to be professionals. Your teambuilding efforts should go beyond typical get-to-know-you games in a way that recognizes, appeals to, and supports both of these aspects of your student volunteer leaders.

Teambuilding with college students can be structured in two parts. The first stage of teambuilding is for purely social interaction, and the second stage comes from a sense of accomplishment as the group accomplishes a task:

1. Facilitate initial teambuilding through social interaction. This step should be brief and informal. It could include things such as name-games or other activities that are fun but not overly childish, or it could be a time of casual conversation in a relaxed environment, such as a coffee bar.

2. Assign the team a task. The task could be a day of service (as volunteers, not volunteer leaders) with your organization, or possibly collaborating on a written plan for what they hope to accomplish as a team with your organization. Shortly following the task should be a more in-depth time of social teambuilding, such as a dinner sponsored by your organization.

The outcome of these steps is that team members will continue to build relationships with one another.

Team "Point Person": Throughout the process, the team needs a “point person.” Ideally, this would be you or someone who works at your organization, or it may be someone from the campus, such as a dean or the staff at the volunteer/service-learning office.

Team Leader: The team leader is the person who is available to work with the team, support the members, and field questions, suggestions, complaints, and ideas. This person will also be responsible for recognizing the accomplishments of the team and will be the ambassador of the students to the organization.

Create Standards and Structure for Team Processes

Another key ingredient for team success is a process of creating standards, in the form of recognizable protocols and schedules. This may include mandatory weekly meetings or a standard system for ending each project or day of service, such as a set time for reflection, another method of bringing closure to each stage of their volunteer experience.

Establishing these structures will formalize the process. No matter what individual volunteer position descriptions might be, the team as a whole will have understood and agreed on the expectations. As a result, these processes will keep team members from dropping out of participation or leaving out other teammates.

Recipes for Team Building

If you cook, you probably use recipes. A recipe lists the ingredients and the actions necessary to end up with a specific product. Imagine that your final product is a cohesive, functioning team of student volunteer leaders. Working with your small group, you can create a recipe for "cooking up" such a team. Click the link to access the Recipes for Team Building Activity: RecipesforTeambuilding.pdf.


Volunteering is an ideal time to bring together diverse students to provide richness and depth to your projects. Throughout the stages of group process, work with students to facilitate teambuilding and help them make the most of their experience. In this section you have learned to:

  • Understand group process
  • Create teams
  • Adapt dynamics of existing teams
  • Facilitate effective teambuilding

In the next section you will discover some ideas for deepening a student’s experience through service-learning.

Connecting Service and Learning

When service is combined with planned learning objectives and reflection, it is called "service-learning." Through service, people of any age can gain valuable knowledge and develop skills that can be applied in their school, work, or personal lives.


In this section we will look at how to use reflection to build students’ service-learning experience, and help them move from students to engaged citizens. This includes:

  • Understanding the term service-learning
  • Connecting service and learning
  • Reflecting on service
  • Utilizing the SVL Service-Learning Model
  • Researching the issue


Understanding Service-Learning

A form of experiential education in which people learn through service. In contrast to traditional service, service-learning is designed so that those who serve also benefit from the experience in a clear way.

Although people of any age can participate in service-learning, it is particularly beneficial for students. Through their service, students can:

  • Develop personal and professional skills
  • Become more aware of the community in which they live
  • Gain insight into particular issues
  • Work toward becoming more engaged citizens

Benefits of Service-Learning

Service-learning changes the very nature of a volunteer project. Everyone involved in a service-learning activity benefits.

Benefits of service-learning
  • Education about the issue on a global scale
  • Education about the issue locally, or specific to the organization or community in which the service occurs
  • Perspective on how they might apply academic and/or empirical research to real-life situations
  • Cultural and social context to the service
Campus / Organization
  • Informed and prepared student volunteers more readily think in an interdisciplinary manner
  • Informed and prepared student volunteers can be ambassadors for issues and causes on their campuses and in the larger social arena
  • Informed and prepared student volunteers are skilled, respectful volunteers who know the importance of the issue and how it relates to the community in which they are working
Service Recipients
  • A community that receives the service of knowledgeable, skilled volunteers experiences a service project that generally has impact and is sustainable
  • Informed and prepared volunteers are willing and able to look to the root causes of the problems, instead of being content to address them only on the surface

Applying Service-Learning

Service-learning works best when you are intentional about the learning goals of a service experience. Consider what volunteers should understand or learn or gain as a result of their participation in the activity. Are they:

  • ...developing specific skill sets or utilizing the knowledge gained through their college courses?
  • ...learning about a community issue?
  • ...seeking ways to deepen their service?

Let's look more closely at ways to connect service and learning with student volunteer leaders.

Connecting Service with Learning

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Planning Service Projects and Learning Goals

Work with students to plan a service project, or series of projects, then decide what learning goals are related to that project. For example: your group can decide to sponsor a river clean-up day, then determine what volunteers can gain from that experience.

You might also identify learning goals and then plan projects to meet those goals. For example, you may work with a group of science majors who want to learn more about pollution, so they plan a river clean-up day.

Often the service project and learning goals are developed simultaneously. To facilitate this, you can work with SVLs, community agencies, or groups on campus (e.g., academic departments or student organizations) to identify project ideas and/or learning goals.

Once you are working closely with SVLs, or a group of volunteers, you should also be conscious of allowing their skill sets and interest areas to shape the volunteer experience.

Partner with Classes on Campus

Be sure to build the correct partnerships in order to make your service-learning endeavors a success. One of the best ways to create a strong service-learning experience is to work directly with classes on campus. Many schools today have incorporated service-learning into their curriculum, and students are able to connect their service to course credits. Many times, even classes without a specified service-learning component will allow students to volunteer in lieu of other course work. You can recruit students more easily when the service opportunity is targeted to a specific course, and you will see a higher level of student accountability if the project is linked to course credit.

Reflecting on Service

The key element of service-learning is reflection. Reflection provides volunteers the opportunity to make the connection between their service and a community issue or other learning goal. Through reflection volunteers can think about:

  • Their service: what they did (or will do, or are doing)
  • How it affected them
  • The impact it made on the community
  • Future action they can take

Leading the Reflection Experience

Reflection can take place anytime during a volunteer’s service. The staff or SVLs should be prepared to lead volunteers through this experience. Consider the following ideas for creating the best environment for reflection discussions at a service project:

At the Beginning:
Reflection can be included in volunteer orientation. For example: Ask a representative of the community agency to discuss the organization's mission and purpose. As a group, explore how the work being completed will directly impact that community. The community agency representative can also use this time to discuss the ongoing volunteer opportunities available with the agency and sign up individuals who are interested. SVL Note: SVLs should have this conversation with the agency during project planning. This will enable them to better understand the issue and to make sure their project will have the greatest impact possible.

During the Project:
You can facilitate reflection while students are serving. For example: If volunteers are engaged in tasks that are quiet or not labor intensive, lead discussion while they are working. If students are engaged in tasks that prevent discussion, one reflection idea is to post flyers around the service site with facts about the issue to encourage students to think about and discuss the impact of their service. Another idea is to have a large banner available for volunteers to jot down their reflections throughout the project.

At the End:
Once service has been completed, gather everyone around and engage people in conversation by asking them to share their stories about what was accomplished during the event. Make arrangements to include people from the community served in a post-service discussion. At the conclusion of the discussion ask people to make a commitment to assist that community agency with their needs and commit to inspiring others in their community.

After the Project:
Students can continue reflecting on their service after the actual project ends. For example: Through follow-up correspondence, service celebrations, or other activities, you can continue to keep students informed and motivated about the issue.

Now let's look at a model for service-learning experiences to see how building campus partnerships and incorporating reflection activities into service projects can connect a student's service to the learning objectives.

Utilizing the SVL Service-Learning Model

Envisioned by Citizen Action AmeriCorps members serving at Hands On Network, Seattle Works, and Boston Cares programs, the Service-Learning Model is one approach to using reflection to help students move toward civic engagement, even beyond their current volunteer service.

The SVL Service-Learning Model centers around a community issue and, through the use of reflection, helps students transform from citizens to volunteers to engaged citizens, and finally to campus and community advocates for civic participation, along a continuum of service and learning experiences.

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FROM STUDENT TO CITIZEN: The first step is connecting students to an issue. It may be a global issue, such as HIV/AIDS, or something closer to home, such as the neglected state of the playground in a neighborhood close to campus. It could be an issue that makes someone stop and think, or perhaps a news story that makes a person want to DO something. Often the strongest connection comes from a student being personally affected by an issue. The connection might come when a student walks to campus and sees the effects of poverty in the community, or crosses a bridge over a polluted river or stream.

Through reflection and education about the issue, you can help students recognize that they are citizens. No matter their backgrounds or affiliation, they should consider themselves an active and vital part of the community where they currently live. And as citizens, they have certain rights and responsibilities to act on the issues that affect them and their community.

FROM CITIZEN TO VOLUNTEER: The next step is mobilizing students through service. Use reflection to help students move from understanding that they are citizens to acting on that understanding. If they are connected to a particular issue, one form of action is volunteering. What are ways students can, through service, alleviate the impact this issue has on the community?

For SVL’s, this step includes: researching the issue, planning a project or a series of projects, and engaging other students in meaningful ways.

FROM VOLUNTEER TO ENGAGED CITIZEN: Reflection is the key to helping students move beyond volunteer service to deeper civic engagement. For example: Imagine that you’re about to do dishes in your kitchen sink; you have the stopper in the bottom and you’re filling the sink with water. The phone rings, so you stop what you’re doing and pick up the phone. Your friend needs a ride. You run out the door, inadvertently leaving the water running and the sink plugged. When you come home, the kitchen is flooding. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Grab a mop? No, turn off the faucet. Often when we’re volunteering, we spend our time "mopping up the water" without addressing the fact that "the faucet is still running." Reflection as part of volunteering encourages students to explore why "the faucet is still running," and is the primary avenue for connecting service with greater civic involvement.

Reflection provides the structured time for volunteers to make the connection between the service they are providing and how it relates to larger social issues. Use reflection to help students investigate specific ways they can dive deeper into the issue. Each student’s action may be different. Some might choose to write letters to their local elected officials, while others lobby for stricter federal guidelines around their issue. Some students may sponsor a voter registration drive to ensure their community’s population is represented at the polls, and other students could stage an awareness campaign so that, when those community members go to the polls, they are informed and prepared to vote honestly on the issue. Although there are many definitions for civic participation, in this instance, let's define it simply as engaging in public problem solving. Civic participation can vary from campus to campus and from student to student.

FROM ENGAGED CITIZEN TO STUDENT ADVOCATE: Finally, the SVL Service-Learning Model cycles back to the students themselves. After they have had an intense service and civic action experience, it’s important to help them process what they’ve done and the impact they’ve had. More importantly, reflect with them to identify ways they can apply what they’ve learned. These students could become the campus’ strongest advocates for service and civic participation, particularly around their issue area.

This is the stage when students determine how they can take the global lessons they’ve learned and apply them in their everyday world. BreakAway, a national organization that uses alternative breaks as a method of creating a society of active citizens, calls this stage “reorientation.”

From campus to community, and back again, this model mobilizes students in meaningful ways and helps them reflect on their experiences to continue growing as active and engaged citizens. Let's look more closely at how to apply the SVL Service-Learning Model effectively...

Connecting to an Issue

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]As SVLs move along the service-learning continuum, they will serve as leaders to mobilize other students to join them in service and civic action. As discussed, the model centers around connecting students to an issue. Researching the issue, and determining how to effectively connect students to the issue, is key to the success of this service-learning model.

Research, Define, and Know the Issue

The following checklist can help you get started with researching, identifying, and learning about your issue:

General Research

  • Alter egos: You may know your issue as "Public School Restoration"; others may call it "Urban School Revitalization," or something related to addressing the resource gap in the public school system. Get to know all the names that your issue might go by, and all the major subheadings that go along with it, so that you can quickly identify your issue as you are conducting research (formally or informally) on the topic.
  • Related issues: Be aware of the other important issues and topics that are often related to your issue.
  • Organizations, companies, people to know: Make note of organizations, locally and in the larger spectrum, that address your topic. Contact these organizations to ask for more information. Many have fliers or pamphlets of information that they mail out to interested parties.

Local Research

  • Make the connections: In your research of organizations, companies, and people to know, if you find a person or group that operates locally, it's a good idea to meet with them face-to-face; introduce yourself and let them know that you will be conducting service on the very issue for which they have expertise. They may be an ideal project partner or a source of information for volunteer orientation and issue education.
  • On campus: Are there clubs, organizations, classes, or professors on campus that have addressed your issue? If so, go to them and make the connections in any way you can.
  • Nothing official happening locally? Find more general service-oriented organizations, like Hands On Network organizations or volunteer centers, and connect with them on your issue topic. It’s possible they have touched on it in the past, or they may have statistics or research about your local community that can show you how you might connect the issue to your area. For example: if your topic is children and nutrition, look beyond the increased number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Why has this number risen so drastically in the past few years? Maybe no one has made the connection between children's nutrition and the fact that the town’s largest factory closed down and, as a result, the unemployment rate in your community has spiked.

Utilizing the Issue Research

Once you have researched, identified, and learned about your issue, take the results of your research two steps further:

1. Place the issue into a global perspective. Find out what’s been going on recently around the world using the research you have already performed locally. Current events could include the creation of new (or change to existing) policies that affect the issue, or something as simple as a new documentary highlighting the issue.

2. Present the issue. By now you should have plenty of research information, and maybe even access to resources that can help you present your findings in an effective way. Prepare an action plan for how you are going to present the issue to inform your volunteers, students, and the broader community — one of the first steps in service-learning. Some ideas for presenting the issue include:

  • Have a “movie night” during which you show a documentary or film that covers the issue.
  • Prepare a packet of information, including pamphlets and a flier, to hand out to your volunteers. If there is a lot of information to cover, create a “friendly-read” fact sheet with bullet points you think are relevant (e.g., related current events, local connections, information about a partner organization).
  • Host a panel discussion. Invite local leaders, representatives from any potential partner organizations, or even people who have been affected by the issue, to discuss your topic. You might invite just your volunteers, or you could make the event open to the public. Make sure you are prepared with specific questions for your panel; this will help your audience warm up to ask questions of their own.
  • Assign your volunteers a few unique statistics, facts, or other relevant information about your topic. Over a dinner night, ask each person to tell the group about his or her assigned piece of information. Be ready with more discussion topics about the issue to address while you eat.

Applying the Knowledge

After the initial stages of presenting your volunteers with research and information about the issue, move your volunteers along the SVL Service-Learning continuum by helping them to do the following:

  • Connect with the issue
  • Recognize that they can do something about it
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Become engaged citizens who can apply their experiences on campus and in the community

SVL Service-Learning Model Activities and Templates

Click on each of the following links to access training and implementation tools that can help you effectively use reflection to guide student volunteer leaders along the service-learning model continuum:




As you work with students around a particular community issue, you can use reflection as a tool to help transform them from students who don’t participate in their community to truly engaged citizens. This section has enabled you to:

  • Better understand service-learning
  • Connect service and learning
  • Reflect on service
  • Utilize the SVL Service-Learning Model
  • Research the issue

In the next section, we discuss how students can use service and volunteer leadership to build personal and professional skills.

Building Skills Through Service

Volunteering — especially in a leadership role — is a great way for college students to build skills that can be transferred to their future careers. You are in a good position to help SVLs get training and coaching that will help them succeed as leaders, and to encourage them to take advantage of the development opportunities that come with serving in a volunteer leadership role.


In this section we discuss how to support the development of student volunteer leaders by:

  • Training leaders to develop necessary skills
  • Providing flexibility in position descriptions
  • Coaching students
  • Delegating successfully
  • Creating “signature” projects
  • Expanding your resources
  • Formalizing the experience


Training to Develop Skill Areas

Student volunteer leaders may not have every skill necessary for planning a project and leading other students in service. You can help them identify the skills they do have and determine the skills that they need to develop. Some of the skills that student volunteer leaders can build through service include:

Skill AreaSVL Skill Applications
Volunteer Skills and Applications
Budgeting and Resource Management
  • Fundraising and solicitation
  • Creating and working within a budget
  • Corresponding with community agencies and partners
  • Communicating service goals and tasks to volunteers
Cultural Competence
  • Volunteering with people of different cultures
  • Engaging with new populations in the community
  • Identifying key project tasks
  • Determining leaders for specific tasks
Managing People
  • Managing volunteers during a service activity
  • Coordinating an event
Marketing and Recruitment
  • Marketing service opportunities throughout the campus
  • Recruiting new volunteers
Motivating Others
  • Keeping volunteers engaged in the service community
  • Helping volunteers to connect to a community issue
  • Developing a project scope of work
  • Creating a project timeline
  • Leading a volunteer orientation
  • Facilitating a service-learning and reflection activity
Problem Solving
  • Troubleshooting during a service activity
  • Developing contingency plans for projects

Once you and your student volunteers have identified the skills you would like to develop during their service experience, you can design appropriate training sessions. Training topics should include relevant skill areas, such as project development, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and project management. Before undertaking a training series, be sure you have the time and energy to give the SVLs what they may need. Be careful not to promise more than you can deliver as a point person or organization.

Take time to carefully plan how you will train. Don’t just present information; help students connect it to other areas and determine how it will be useful or how they will apply it. Consider structuring your training around the Experiential Learning Cycle.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

  • Experience – This step sets the stage for the rest of the cycle. Offer content and activities that will produce information or understanding.
  • Describe – Encourage SVLs to share their experiences with the group. They can discuss what happened and their impressions of the experience.
  • Interpret – Provide opportunities for SVLs to express their reactions to the experience. Help them to go beyond simply observing what happened to looking for the reasons why.
  • Generalize – Ask SVLs to link the experience to the real world. Work with the group to determine if the experience was unique or if it happens in other situations.
  • Apply – Enhance learning retention by allowing space for SVLs to reflect on the lessons they have learned and to share those lessons with others.

Additionally, plan for how you can make your sessions applicable, interesting, and inclusive for all SVLs. Appreciate the diversity represented by the students. In particular, structure your sessions with a variety of teaching methods that will appeal to visual, auditory, and tactile (kinesthetic) learners.

Signature Projects and Flexible Position Descriptions

Create a "Signature Project"

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In addition to training, another way to enrich learning experiences and professional development for SVLs is to provide the opportunity to create signature projects — something they can truly own and lead. Students may want to tackle a large project related to a community issue, or they could organize a day of service, bringing together many community agencies, students, and campuses.

You can also engage students in signature projects within your organization. Aside from average office tasks, give SVLs specific problems or topics for which they can take complete responsibility during their time with your program. For example, your volunteers could reorganize a supply closet or tool bank and find donors or partners to restock necessary supplies.

You can further the volunteer learning experience from signature projects by providing opportunities for volunteers to succeed in their service and evaluate the skills they gained as a result.

Provide Flexibility in Position Descriptions

Students will recognize that they have specific skills they need or want to strengthen. They may sign on as a student volunteer leader in order to hone a certain skill, or they may identify a skill they want to strengthen through the course of their service and training.

Work with students to determine what volunteer roles most closely align with their learning and development goals. Be flexible with their position descriptions to provide opportunities for them to develop and utilize the skills they have identified.

Be Aware of Volunteers' Different Work Styles: Position descriptions should best fit student volunteers' varied work styles. Some students work better with a tightly focused and detailed position description, while others perform better and enjoy their experience more when day-to-day tasks call for myriad skills and responsibilities. Be cognizant of each volunteer's work style and provide a flexible position description that reflects what you know about it.

Coaching and Delegating to Students

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In addition to more formal training, provide some informal training and/or coaching for your leaders to develop the skills that will make them successful in their roles.

Key Elements for Effective Coaching

Remember these key points to effective coaching:

  • A trusting, honest, and respectful relationship between coach and coachee
  • Time for preparation and reflection
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and expectations
  • Effective listening
  • Strategic questions that promote thinking
  • Data collection and thoughtful feedback

Another way to foster skill development is to engage students in brainstorming and project planning from the very beginning. This builds interest and momentum and gives student volunteer leaders more opportunity to develop job skills. Finally, recognize students’ growth through the course of the project development and implementation. As part of your coaching, guide them in how to translate new skills to their resumes.

Delegating to Students

Through further orientation and continuing support, you are preparing student volunteer leaders to take greater responsibility and truly own their service projects. However, you must continue to work with student leaders to accomplish project goals. Effectively delegating project tasks to volunteers requires careful preparation. Consider these tips on how to delegate tasks effectively:

  • Give assignments in terms of results, not just activities or tasks. In order to accomplish something, SVLs need a sense of what they are trying to achieve. Therefore, define jobs as something to accomplish (e.g., $500 raised), rather than something to do (e.g., write a grant proposal). Explain as precisely as possible what they are to do. Explain the importance of the particular task. Show them you have confidence in their ability to carry out the task. Be more interested in results than in how it is done. Be certain that the people you choose are capable of doing the assignment and have the necessary knowledge and training to do it.
  • Define the level of control. Be clear with SVLs about how much authority they have in making decisions. Let them know at the start who will be responsible for making decisions. When appropriate, delegate authority to make decisions, along with the responsibility for carrying out the task.
  • Communicate to your SVLs any guidelines and/or parameters to be used in shaping their decisions. Be specific about deadlines. Help set priorities.
  • Make resources available to your SVLs, and offer any assistance necessary to accomplish tasks. Be aware of the types of support someone might need and the type of support you can provide. Ensure proper access to the tools and resources necessary to get the job done.
  • Determine the criteria for success, and agree on how results will be judged. To be satisfied about their work, SVLs need feedback that indicates the degree of success they are having. Before the project, determine the criteria for success and how success will be evaluated.
  • Establish reporting points for your SVLs along the way. Set specific times to check in with SVLs; this provides the opportunity to discuss progress and will help you avoid having meetings that occur only when things are not going well. Giving SVLs your undivided attention at a regular meeting also lets them know that you care about the work they’re doing and how it is accomplished.


Expanding Your Training Resources

Connecting with other nonprofits and schools in the community can increase the volunteer and leadership development opportunities for students. Consider connecting student volunteers with the following:

  • Community agencies that work around specific issues of interest to SVLs.
  • Volunteer groups at another university that may be serving in different ways, such as through alternative breaks.
  • Community leadership opportunities, such as serving on boards at local agencies.
  • Other academic departments to bridge gaps on campus and strengthen the service movement.
  • Training opportunities, such as seminars or conferences located in or near your town.
  • Professional associations (particularly nonprofit professional associations) for the opportunity to meet leaders in a field that interests them, become aware of important issues in that field, and possibly find other volunteer, internship, or job positions.

Formalize the SVL Experience

Formalizing student volunteers' leadership experience validates their roles and provides them with future growth opportunities. In addition to developing flexible volunteer position descriptions and helping students translate their service to their resumes, consider:

  • utilizing forms for class credit,
  • writing letters of recommendation, and
  • conducting formal performance evaluations for your volunteers.

If you encourage SVLs to reference your organization when applying for future programs, internships, or jobs, be sure that your organization is prepared to keep records on the student volunteer leaders. This will ensure that students receive an honest and prompt reference, even if their immediate supervisor is no longer with the organization.

NOTE: If your organization is prepared to maintain records of student volunteer leaders, be sure to establish procedures for protecting the security of student information as you would for other organization staff.

Click the following links to access templates designed to help you support student volunteer skills development:




Training and coaching SVLs increases their skill development as well as the success of their volunteer projects. Ensure they have the skills necessary to plan and implement their projects, and support them throughout the process. This section has helped you to:

  • Train leaders to develop necessary skills
  • Provide flexibility in position descriptions
  • Coach students
  • Delegate successfully
  • Create “signature” projects
  • Expand your resources
  • Formalize the experience

In the next section, we discuss ideas for retaining and recognizing student volunteer leaders.

Retaining and Recognizing Students

Retention and recognition are key components to managing any volunteer, and they are vital to the success of your program. From beginning to end, students need to feel good about themselves and their service. You can accomplish this through motivation, engagement, reflection, and recognition.


In this section we look at tips for:

  • Keeping SVLs engaged
  • Recognizing students for their achievements


Keeping Students Engaged

The best way to increase your volunteer leadership base is to retain your current student volunteers. Retention is a matter of making student volunteers feel good about themselves and their service.

The key ingredient is keeping students engaged throughout the cycle of project development and implementation. Keeping students engaged will take work on your part throughout the entire project. Remember the following points as you move through the process:

Recruiting and Marketing: Your message should be inspirational and eye-catching. Show students the impact they can have and the benefits they can gain through serving.

Remember the rule of halves: As with almost any event or activity, you can expect that about half of the students who sign up will actually become student volunteer leaders. So although you must be creative in your recruitment and marketing methods, the interaction with the volunteers starts the minute they sign up, even while you’re still recruiting, and even after the project. Within 24 hours of sign-up, contact interested students to thank them for signing up and let them know the next steps, the details of orientation or training, and maybe even some interesting information about being an SVL. Also, don’t give up on no-shows, or those who don’t continue communications with you after their initial sign-up; keep them in the loop for future projects or engage them in ways other than leadership roles.

Before the project: Ensure that everyone is excited about the upcoming work. Engage SVLs in each stage of planning the project and prepare them with the skills they need to succeed. There are a couple of methods for keeping students engaged, keeping momentum going, and avoiding drop-outs:

  • Involve them in pre-project planning and focus on teambuilding to help them work together effectively and be more engaged in the project.
  • Form students into volunteer teams with pre-project assignments, which can be as in-depth as handling fundraising for the event, or as simple as creating bios for all of the volunteers for press and articles.
  • Organize plenty of “just for fun” meetings prior to the event, such as movie nights, coffee dates, or picnics, so the volunteers can get to know each other better. This can also serve as a way to incorporate service-learning via discussion topics on the issue you will be working with.

During the project: Support the SVLs without “taking over.” Additionally, keep SVLs and other volunteers motivated and active. An idle volunteer is one who is unengaged and less likely to want to participate in future projects. Make sure that your project is fun and busy.

Support the SVLs as they recognize that, along with the highlights of service, there are some distinctly unpleasant aspects to it. Acknowledge this, but work with them to identify ways to focus on the positive and highlight the impact of the work being done. Ideas include bringing music to keep the energy up, and ensuring that all volunteers have plenty to do and all the knowledge and materials to accomplish their assigned tasks.

Some other ideas for making the event fun are to:

  • create teams
  • instigate friendly competition
  • make sure there is space and time for breaks with snacks and discussion

After the project: Help SVLs and volunteers to see the impact they’ve made and the work they have done. Be appreciative and thank them often and sincerely.

It is important to bring the group together after the work has been completed for the service-learning aspect, but also for closure. Work with SVLs to make these after-events fun, as well as meaningful. One idea is to set up picture-sharing nights or dinners and to invite someone from the service site to talk about the difference the work made. At these events, be sure to recognize and thank volunteers in genuine, realistic ways.

In addition to any post-service events, make sure you send thank-you notes with pictures or quotes from the event. You can also invite everyone to participate in open forums, such as an online Facebook group, to continue to talk about their work and to bond as a team. This will help keep the momentum going for the next project, and may inspire volunteers to start setting up their own projects.

Leadership toward future projects: Reference the successes of previous projects to ensure participation and continued engagement. It is important to springboard as quickly as possible into a new project:

  • Invite volunteers and student volunteer leaders to a planning and strategy meeting.
  • Ask volunteer leaders if they would like new roles, or if volunteers would like to step into roles with greater responsibility.
  • Send all volunteers extra invitations and ask them to invite their friends. If you’ve done a good job of making sure the project they participated in was impactful and fun, your student volunteers will save you a lot of time by doing most of the recruiting themselves.


  • Maintain frequent communication, such as e-mails, newsletters, check-in calls, or meetings.
  • Keep your service and leadership opportunities highly visible with posters, text messages, signs, banners, ads, and so forth.

Recognizing Students

Take every opportunity to thank SVLs for their service and leadership. Recognition makes volunteers feel appreciated and valued. If SVLs don’t feel like their contribution is valuable or necessary, they probably won’t return to serve again with your organization. Volunteer recognition can take many forms — from a simple thank-you card to a large annual event. An ideal recognition system makes use of many different procedures, with something for every volunteer and something to keep it personal and meaningful.

Remember — students are motivated to serve for different reasons and they serve in different ways. Therefore, tailor your recognition to the individuals as much as possible. To help with this, you can ask SVLs how they like to be recognized and what would be meaningful to them.

Additionally, whenever possible, incorporate notes or messages from the people who benefit from student volunteer service into your recognition activities.

Ways to Recognize Student Volunteers

Think of creative ways to thank and honor your SVLs and other volunteers. Here are some student-specific ideas offered by Citizen Action AmeriCorps members serving with Hands On Network, Seattle Works, and Boston Cares:

  • Include updates in your organizational newsletter about the students, their roles, or their accomplishments.
  • Allow students to write articles or other material about their experiences. Publish it in your newsletter or endorse it for publication in the local or campus newspapers.
  • Support events that mean something to the students. For example: If the campus is hosting a community service fair, set up a booth for your organization and recognize SVLs there. This can serve as an example of innovative programs your organization offers and can also double as a great way to recruit future volunteers.
  • Recognize students at an organizational meeting or banquet.
  • Create thank-you goody bags that include information on future volunteer opportunities.

Other SVL recognition ideas include these:

  • Write a recommendation for a scholarship or job.
  • Assist them with securing internships at your organization or with partner nonprofits or corporations.
  • Offer them roles with greater responsibility, such as organizing multi-campus events or serving on your organization’s board.

Be sure to tell students specifically why or how their service made a difference. For example: “Thank you for re-graveling the school track. About 300 students use this every school day, and they will be so excited that they no longer have to run in the mud.”

Rules for Recognition

These 10 important rules of volunteer recognition are the standard:

Ten Rules of Volunteer Recognition
1Recognize... or else! The need for recognition is very important to most people. If students do not receive recognition for their productive participation, it is likely that they will feel unappreciated and they may stop volunteering with your program.
2Give it frequently. Recognition has a short shelf life. Its effects start to wear off after a few days, and after several weeks of not hearing anything positive, students may start to wonder if they are appreciated. Giving recognition once a year at a recognition banquet is not enough.
3Give it using a variety of methods. One of the implications of rule #2, "give it frequently," is that you need a variety of methods to show your appreciation to volunteers.
4Give it honestly. Don’t give praise unless you mean it. If you praise substandard performance, the praise you give to others for good work will not be valued. If a student is performing poorly, you might be able to provide honest recognition for his or her effort or for some personality trait.
5Give it to the person, not the work. This is a subtle but important distinction. If students organize a fundraising event, for example, and you praise the event without mentioning who organized it, there may be a feeling of resentment. Make sure you connect the volunteers’ names to your recognition. It is better to say, “Megan, Emily, and Tara did a great job of organizing this event” than to say, “This event was very well organized.”
6Give it appropriately to the achievement. Small accomplishments should be praised with low-effort methods; large accomplishments should get something more. For example: If a student tutor teaches a child to spell “cat” today, you could say, “Well done!” If she writes a grant that doubles your funding, a banner lauding her accomplishment might be more appropriate.
7Give it consistently. If two students are responsible for similar achievements, they ought to get similar recognition. If one gets her picture in the lobby and another gets an approving nod, the latter may feel resentment. This does not mean that the recognition has to be exactly the same, rather that it should be the result of similar effort on your part.
8Give it on a timely basis. Praise for work should come as soon as possible after the achievement. Don’t save up your recognition for the annual banquet. If students have to wait months before hearing any word of praise, they may develop resentment for lack of praise in the meantime.
9Give it in an individualized fashion. Different people like different things. One might respond favorably to football tickets, while another might find such tickets useless. Some like public recognition; others find it embarrassing. In order to provide effective recognition, you must get to know your SVLs and learn what they will respond to positively.
10Give it for what you want more of. Too often you may be tempted to pay most attention to SVLs who are having difficulty. Unfortunately, this may result in ignoring good performers. Don’t ignore sub-par volunteers, but make sure that you praise the efforts of those who are doing a good job.



You can retain and expand your student volunteer leader base by engaging SVLs throughout the process and by sincerely recognizing them for their service and leadership efforts. When tailored to meet the needs of individual SVLs, retention and recognition prepares your leaders to take on greater tasks and increase your organization’s capacity to positively affect the community.

Download this Retention Case Study activity for more about engaing and recognizing student volunteers: RetentionCaseStudy.pdf

As a result of this section of the course, you should be able to:

  • Keep SVLs engaged
  • Recognize student volunteers appropriately for their achievements

Course Summary

College students have energy, ideas, skills, and an interest in being involved in their community. Tap into this fabulous resource by mobilizing college students as volunteer leaders in your organization. These students can gain valuable personal and professional skills as they research issues and engage their fellow students and other community members in service.

Make an organizational commitment to student volunteer leadership and create a strong program that will actively recruit students, build strong teams, connect service with learning, provide opportunities for skill development, support students, and recognize their efforts. The students, your organization, and the community will benefit from such a rich civic movement.

Learning Objectives

At the completion of this course, you should feel prepared to:

  • Create a student volunteer leader program
  • Recruit and support student volunteer leaders
  • Build teams of student leaders
  • Connect service with learning
  • Build student volunteers’ skills through service

Congratulations for completing the e-course Engaging College Students as Volunteer Leaders, part of the Volunteer Management online learning series!

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A large portion of the material in this course was developed or adapted by Citizen Action AmeriCorps members serving at Hands On Network, Seattle Works, and Boston Cares for use in creating, piloting, and expanding the Hands On Campus Initiative. Other portions of the course were adapted from resources by Hands On Greater Portland and L.A. Works, two Hands On Network member organizations.