5 things we learnt volunteering

Why would a digital agency spend the best part of a week volunteering for The Meningitis Trust and what would we learn?

By Jo Dunning · September 26, 2012

Well there was a multitude of reasons for volunteering. The two most important were:

Firstly, we wanted to raise awareness of Meningitis symptoms during Freshers Week as after babies, teenagers and students are the second most at-risk group from the deadly disease.

And secondly, we wanted to pay tribute to the inspirational Meningitis Trust campaigner Alex Williams. You might have seen Alex on Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire programme earlier this year, where his bravery and spirit stole the heart of the programme’s millionaire Matthew Newbury and the audience watching.

alex williams and matthew newbury

Alex, 18, volunteered most weekends for the Meningitis Trust at the ASDA store close to his home in Ashton, giving out symptoms cards and raising awareness of the disease that he’d been affected by since the age of 7.

When we saw Alex on the programme we wanted to help him with his volunteering. We already had some connection with the Meningitis Trust, we had developed a Meningitis symptoms android app for the charity last year and wanted to help Alex give out the symptoms cards and encourage people to download the app. Unfortunately, we never got the chance as Alex sadly passed away last month, he was only 18.

Inspired by Alex, we were determined to raise awareness and it was great for us to experience first hand some of the challenges the charities we work with face every day. So, armed with 5000 Meningitis symptoms cards and a Monty the Duck costume we took to the streets. This is what we learnt…

Timing is important

Freshers Week in September just happens to coincide with the peak season for Meningitis. The timing meant we could target a group who are susceptible to Meningitis, but who are largely unaware of its symptoms and the fact that they are at risk.

We focused on Freshers events across Manchester – one of Europe’s student capitals. We managed to get students engaged in conversation while they were picking up the keys to their Halls, and chatted to their parents as they were dropping them off – just as they’ve still got some influence over their soon to be free kids! We were also ever-present at the University of Manchester’s Freshers Fair giving out symptoms cards and encouraging people to download the app. And we took to one of the city’s busiest student thoroughfares – Oxford Road – with a 6 ft duck (The Meningitis Trust mascot Monty) to spread and quack our message far and wide.

matt handing out leaflets

Know what you are talking about

We were thoroughly drilled about Meningitis symptoms, the difference between Meningitis and Septicaemia and their after-effects before we went out. And we were well equipped with information from the Meningitis Trust. Many of the students we spoke to were misinformed about Meningitis, lots thought they had been vaccinated, but there is no vaccine for Meningitis B which affects teenagers and adults the most. This perhaps was the most rewarding thing – improving awareness, making people think about the symptoms and the fact that this could help save lives.

Let people know you are doing it

No matter whether you volunteer regularly or once in a while – we found that it was really important to spread the word and let people know what we were doing and why. We let the Manchester press pack know that we were raising awareness of Meningitis with students over Freshers Week in Alex’s memory, and luckily for us BBC Radio Manchester picked up on the story and invited us in for an interview alongside the Secret Millionaire Matthew Newbury (who appeared on the programme with Alex and helped adapt his house to meet his needs). We estimate that we reached 40,000 of the station’s listeners, meaning the Meningitis Trust’s Freshers week message went even further.

We also reached over 40,000 people on Twitter thanks to retweets of our volunteering from The University of Manchester, Student Room, Meningitis Trust, BBC Radio Manchester and Matthew Newbury. The Meningitis Trust blogged about it and the Manchester Evening News picked up on our presence promoting the Meningitis app to 20,000 new students. Reaching out to the media and Twitter meant that we could the message out to people across the UK as well as on the streets of Manchester.

woman holding megaphone

Keep on going

We found out pretty quickly that not everyone wanted to chat about Meningitis, they had other things on their mind like getting down to the student union, or doing some pre-course reading – ok so the former is more likely than the latter! But most students were extremely receptive to taking a symptoms card, downloading the app and chatting about their health – many thanked us for being there and raising awareness and lots said that their next stop would be registering with a GP. And for those students who walked on by we still believe that seeing 6ft Monty the Duck with a Meningitis Trust placard might just prick their consciousness one day.

However, over four days we gave out 5000 symptoms cards mainly in the cold, wind and rain and admittedly for a few hours in the sun, which we feel brought us a little bit closer to what some of the people we develop apps and websites have to do day in and day out. Having the determination to keep on going and delivering your message no matter what the reaction is or what the weather and having the confidence to try new things and new approaches. We salute you.

The power of the mascot

Whether you are pro or anti mascot, we found that having Monty the Duck along for the ride definitely caused a stir and at times a little confusion when he was confused for a chicken! Monty was a great way for us to capture peoples attention, gain eye contact and get them in conversation. Although the reaction to Monty was fascinating, some students seemed almost suspicious of him at times – perhaps thinking that mascots are for kids, while others loved him and left the volunteers inside Monty feeling like a rock star!

monty the mascot

So this is what we learnt, and we hope this blog might help people interested in volunteering as well as people who work with volunteers. While we focused on awareness-raising, there’s a whole gamut of volunteering opportunities out there, if what we did helps save one life it will be worth it.

Visit the Meningitis Trust website for more information about the organisation and how they help support survivors and families of people who have contracted Meningitis.

Download the meningitis symptoms apps at http://bit.ly/e943OF