Charity organizations are there to help others, but sometimes the helpers need a hand too − which is how the COVID-19 Student Response Network (CSRN) came into being.

Devised and run by a group of students from Bristol University in the UK, the network helps charities tackle the impact of the pandemic on their operations. In a matter of months, CSRN has grown to include more than 1,000 student consultants advising around 75 charities, across eight different countries − with a little guidance from its sponsors.

The University of Bristol, UK. Source: Shutterstock

Responding to a crisis

The network’s six founders met while volunteering at the Bristol branch of 180 Degrees Consulting, a student-run consultancy that supports charities and social enterprises. The initiative provides a platform for students to develop themselves professionally, while contributing to the world around them.

When the pandemic arrived, the six quickly gained first-hand experience of helping local charities understand the impact of COVID-19 on their operations. During lockdown, organizations like Age UK Bristol and children’s charity Variety had to find ways to cut costs and shift operations online.

Appreciating the scale of the impact this disruption could have on the entire charity sector, the group took action − and the CSRN was born.

In between their studies, the group offered local charities pro bono consulting support with things like fundraising appeals, social media campaigns, data analytics, digitization, management and strategy − and supported their move to digital working.

Mentors at work

To bolster its expertise in delivering this support, CSRN partnered with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which provided training sessions and professional mentoring to support consultants and help solve business problems.

“It’s amazing how much a little bit of experienced guidance contributes to a project,” Jack Elliott, Founder and CEO of CSRN and 180 Degrees Bristol, says. “A lot of the work we do is familiar, but a 20-minute mentoring meeting can completely transform the quality of a project.”

Mentors like Sally Barrington, CX Engagement Lead at TCS UKI, give their time to help the network’s consultants develop; they listen to any challenges that arise, work out solutions, help with management and strategy decisions and provide professional resources. The support is both practical and emotional, helping to develop each consultant’s confidence and skills. 

“I enjoy building a solid rapport with the students and helping them deliver high-quality work,” Barrington says. “It’s so rewarding to see them receive the recognition they deserve from their clients.”

Training and mentoring aids everything from client proposals to developing strategy − and includes deep-dive sessions on a given technical concept relevant to a project.

Source: Shutterstock

As well as sharing templates for deliverables, user journey maps and other resources, mentors help open up new ways of thinking so that consultants can tackle challenges and engage with action planning for the future. This includes introducing tools to manage projects and analyze data in new ways, such as using social listening and SEO management to identify trends and patterns in a project’s data. 

“My professional experience has a clear and direct impact on the lives and abilities of the student consultants,” Barrington says. “But as a mentor to them, I also learn something.” 

Better together

By tapping into community foundations, local government and other influential organizations, CSRN helped Bristol charities navigate a maze of uncertainties, while looking for ways to scale up the help it offered.

Partnering with a number of other consultancies, recruitment hubs were established in universities across the UK to recruit new student consultants, who were then trained centrally from the network HQ in Bristol.

The scaled-up CSRN now connects the leaders of social impact organizations with a global network of student consultancies working to help charities in England, Germany, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi.

“TCS’ support has genuinely been of paramount importance to the scale of our success these past few months and we would not be in the position we are today if it wasn’t for people such as Sally volunteering their precious time to support our mission,” Elliott says.

A win-win situation

The partnership opens up a world of expert insights and access to training resources and information, which otherwise would be inaccessible to young people with limited business experience.

“The tangible benefit is it allows us to engage in technical and high-impact consultancy. It means we have this platform of experience that we can bounce ideas off, to deliver high-quality, technical work,” Elliott explains.

While support from corporate volunteers is invaluable to the network, the partnership is also beneficial to companies looking for new talent. Ties between CSRN and sponsor organizations like TCS open up recruitment opportunities for student consultants looking to develop their careers.

It’s a win-win situation for students keen to take their first steps working as consultants, for the wealth of global charities and organizations in need of high-quality pro bono consultancy help, and the training sponsors that support these efforts. And with so much potential for growth, it looks like a relationship that will endure for some time.