Collaboration is a tricky word. More often than not collaborative projects can be undermined by a minefield of negotiations about who’s responsible for what, what the ‘real’ aim of the project is, and whose agenda you should be working to. Throw in a “cross-sector” collaboration and the cynics out there wish us the best of luck. But, ladies and gentlemen, over the last six months I have discovered that such hackneyed ideas don’t stand up to reality.
In May last year, I met with Cambridge City Council’s Executive Councillor for Community, Arts & Recreation. We were in consensus that the city needed a space in which the multitude of voluntary groups in Cambridge could come together: not only to network and celebrate shared aims, but also to connect them to the pool of potential volunteers that exist in Cambridge. Our aim was to make it really easy for anyone in Cambridge who knew that they cared about something – but didn’t know how to take action on it – to connect to a group that could make that happen. From the outset, we were clear on our aim: to get more people involved in volunteering, bring together organisations with shared aims and break down the oft quoted ‘town/gown’ divide by opening the event up to students and locals alike.
My first experience of delivering an event of such scale was hugely exciting. Trying to settle on a name for the event back in October, it felt like there was a very, very long way to go; but five months later as I stood in Cambridge’s Market Square looking up at 3 meter “Volunteer for Cambridge” banner hanging from the Town Hall, I realised that collaboration truly is the key to success. Our hard work paid off, as on the day we saw almost 600 students and locals pour through the doors of The Guildhall to meet 80 groups offering everything from volunteering in the fire service to the Street Child World Cup. More than anything, what this large turnout proved was that Cambridge is full of active citizens who are looking for opportunities to give their time to the causes they care about.
Firstly, the event has connected us to a multitude of incredibly inspiring groups who are changing the world for the better in Cambridge.
Secondly, working closely with the Council has been a wonderful experience that shows that successful collaboration is all about building good working relationships with amazing people.
And finally, we have deepened our roots in the city. This, to me, is at the core of what we do; bringing together students with the local community, beyond the cloisters of the ancient university. Through projects like Schools Plus and the Social Innovation Programme, we’re connecting students at the University of Cambridge to the city, giving them the chance to develop their skills and learn about the place they live whilst contributing to local issues.
Through Volunteer for Cambridge we have replicated this on an enormous scale. Falling during Student Volunteering Week, the fair offered a chance for hundreds of students to find out about ways to break out of the bubble and give something back. At the same time, community groups have benefitted from our support beyond the day itself, as many have signed up to host an intern through our Social Impact Internship Scheme or run a challenge through our Social Innovation Programme, adding to their capacity to create positive social change.
This, for me, is what collaboration is all about. The chance to facilitate interaction between two of Cambridge’s largest community anchors; the University and the Council, driving towards a culture in which it becomes the norm for students to give back to their local community during their time at university.