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Student life: Igniting solutions

A group of University of Otago student consultants are transforming Dunedin's not-for-profit sector by providing fresh ideas, knowledge and skills – for free.

Take a team of highly motivated, altruistic students armed with an intrinsic knowledge of the latest in social media, fresh ideas for marketing and fundraising, and a passion for improving the community they live in – and you've got a winning formula. And that's the idea behind Ignite Consultants.

With an impressive portfolio of not-for-profits already under their belt, including the Cancer Society, Presbyterian Support, Habitat for Humanity, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Sophie Elliott Foundation and Dog Rescue Dunedin, Ignite is a charitable organisation started by Otago University students in 2010, aiming to assist Dunedin's charities by building strategic partnerships and offering expertise.

Each semester 15 talented and motivated student consultants (mainly undergraduates, with several postgraduate students) are recruited by Ignite (via a rigorous selection process) to work on three key projects for the city's not-for-profit organisations.

“Ignite was formed to create more of an interface between profit on the one hand and charities on the other. Rather than just looking at generating more income for the charities involved, we seek to help the organisations better utilise what they have,” says strategist and founding member Jordan Campbell.

“Generally speaking, most organisations come to us with similar problems – marketing and funding. We look at creative solutions. For some, that's putting together funding packages so that an organisation can go out to potential funders and say this is what we do, and this is what we need. For another, it might be reassessing their entire business model and plan. It depends on what any given organisation needs.”

Project rounds happen twice a year – and are selected based on their level of need and their fit with the Ignite model. While, in the beginning, Ignite went in search of community projects, now the group have a choice of “worthy, quality” applications.

“We're lucky enough to be in a position now where people have heard about us and they're coming to us with their project ideas,” says executive director Victoria Watt.

“We do have a lot of choice now and that's probably the hardest part. They are all so worthy.”

This semester, the group's lucky three are a strategic direction for the Dunedin branch of the Hearing Association, fundraising and marketing opportunities for Camp Quality and exploring long-term funding options for Dunedin's ChatBus Trust – a free mobile counselling service for lower-decile primary and intermediate schools.

“The idea was that we wanted to be able to work with anyone. Some organisations might be just one person trying to do something for the community. We really want to be able to help those people, too, if the project is right,” says Campbell.

The executive team can list a catalogue of successes for every project, but are particularly proud of the work they have done for the Sophie Elliott Foundation and Habitat for Humanity, where many of their recommendations are now being implemented at national level.

“It's the ability to take a complete step back: not just say 'how can we function better within this model', but go right back to the beginning and ask questions like 'what is it that you're trying to do?' 'How can you most effectively do that?'” says projects director Anna Charles-Jones.

“It's amazing what five driven and dedicated people can do over eight weeks.”

This was recognised last month when Ignite won the Education and Child/Youth Development category of the TrustPower Dunedin Community Awards.

The Ignite model is a win-win for both parties. Not only do the client organisations get quality, free consultancy, which includes a strategic report and formal presentation to the board produced over eight weeks, but the student consultants also gain vital work experience – and the guidance of a mentor from the private or not-for-profit sector – needed to score that first job.

Consultants come from every faculty – student doctors, lawyers, scientists, IT experts, arts and commerce students – all looking for an opportunity to learn more through the specialised training sessions the group run, and apply what they have learnt in their university study to the real world.

“It's a practical way of using their degrees,” says Watt. “We take students from all different departments because they all have something very different to offer. We need a lot of big thinkers who look at problems holistically – and then we've got a lot of students who really get down to the details. We put our teams together based on their strengths, but every degree becomes useful in each group.

“We give students the opportunity to use what they learn at university in a real-world setting, while giving back to the community and providing innovative solutions to not-for-profit organisations who haven't got access to those resources themselves.”

And in a competitive post-university world, experience always counts. Despite its relatively short history, many of the Ignite alumni have gone on to jobs in high-profile consultancy firms, marketing companies and not-for-profit organisations. All credit their experience with Ignite as giving them the necessary tools, skills and knowledge to help them secure their first real jobs.

While the organisation is independent of the University – and the work the students do remains voluntary and does not count towards their academic courses – Ignite is supported by the Business School, which provides their office space (including internet and power) and helps out with printing costs. In all other ways, Ignite operates like any other grass-roots charitable trust, fundraising with pub quizzes and looking at long-term sustainability issues. But the future looks bright.

“This semester, we had quadruple the number of applicants we needed and double the number in our 'yes' pile. We've also got more organisations coming to us, so we are definitely looking at expanding,” says Charles-Jones.

“The great thing about our model is that it's relatively easy to expand and take on another project.

“We've had an incredible number of high-calibre people through Ignite and what we hope our consultants will get out of their time is a passion for social causes and to actually take that through into their career in a really meaningful way.”


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