Interview: How we create social impact at Unite Students
5 September 2023
Unite Students’ accommodation isn’t just about buildings – it’s about being a positive and engaged part of a local community. We spoke to Ivy Yarrow, Social Impact Manager at Unite Students, for a deeper dive into what social impact looks like at Unite Students and the benefits it provides for our employees, students, university partners, charities and local communities.
Prior to taking on the role of Social Impact Manager at Unite Students, you worked in our frontline operations teams. What drew you towards working in social impact, and how had you been involved in social impact initiatives during your time in ops?
I spent a long time working in operations across a number of different positions – I started out as a housekeeper, and ended up being a supervisor by the end. The dynamic nature of operations is something I really enjoyed and I learned a lot there; you never know what’s going to happen or what challenges might be around the corner.
Ultimately I was keen to work on some longer-term projects that I could really sink my teeth into and make a longer-term difference, and social impact seemed like the perfect role for that. I get to manage national partnerships and community spaces in our buildings, engage our teams and support our development teams with the social impact side of planning applications. It’s a different pace to working in the city, but it allows you to really plan and support operations teams to make the biggest difference they can.
During my time in the Bristol city team, we had supported the Streetwise Street Intervention Service (SIS) by offering them free office space at our Chantry Court building and funding a full-time role at their organisation, as well as having ‘Tap for Bristol’ points installed into two of our buildings to allow people to donate money to charity more easily. Being familiar with a lot of the social impact work we did as an organisation is one of the things that made the role so appealing when it came up.
Positive Impact is Unite Students’ flagship social impact programme. What does it involve, and how does it make a difference?
Positive Impact is our main vehicle for employee engagement with social impact and our wider sustainability strategy. There are three ‘awards’ that our teams work towards: Bronze, which is our ‘business as usual’ level and makes teams aware of how they can get involved with our community initiatives, while Silver and Gold allows them to take it further by committing to projects in their local community.
We often talk about how we’re responsible and sustainable with our new builds, national partnerships, donations and work with the Unite Foundation, but our teams also want to contribute and often wonder where they fit into that. Positive Impact is how their efforts slot into that broader strategy.
It gives our people the freedom to create a project that not only speaks to what they’re passionate about, but also what’s needed in their local community. I can’t have my finger on the pulse of all 23 cities that we operate in, and no one knows better than our teams what is needed in the area in which they work and live, and it means they can be responsive to the needs they see and dedicate their time to making a difference.
What does a successful Positive Impact project look like?
The most successful projects will form a long-lasting and collaborative relationship with a local organisation that they’re working with, one which involves other stakeholders where possible. That’s where sometimes our Higher Education partners are invited to come along, as well as students and members of the local community. I’ve seen some really excellent projects that utilise the skills that a team already has so they can maximise impact as much as possible, or where a city team has leveraged its contractor relationships to provide extra support for their project.
It also has to be a project that is dynamic and develops over time; that’s where you start to see projects that are really successful and have a genuine impact. Charities’ needs change a lot throughout the year, and it’s important that our projects have that element of flexibility and are responsive to the needs of the community and the organisation they’re working with. It’s also important we don’t come to the table with preconceptions of what a charity needs, that we really listen to the voice of the people that we’re working with and hear what will be most impactful for them.
The community projects programme is in its infancy, with the vast majority of projects in their first year, so I’m really excited to see what impact they have as they develop over time. What makes Positive Impact successful ultimately is our teams and all the work they put into their projects. We’re assessing our community projects in November, with award winners to be announced in December – so keep an eye out for that!
You also oversee our charity and community partnerships – could you give us a few examples of these, and some of the benefits of these partnerships?
Often when we’re creating a new development, the impact that our properties will have on the local area is a big consideration in the planning process. Section 106 requirements help ensure that the impact we’re having is positive. As part of this, we’ve run competitive tender processes to allocate community space to a local organisation that benefits the surrounding area, allowing us to consult with the community and choose an organisation that will really make a difference in that area. MahaDevi Yoga Centre are a great example of this – they provide subsidised yoga for children with special needs, and have been operating out of our Stapleton House property in London on a peppercorn rent for five years now.
They were in a tough position previously, struggling to find a space that worked for them and was accessible to their beneficiaries. Moving around provides real issues operationally in terms of planning and accessing grants, so stability is vital. But since moving into Stapleton House, they’ve really grown as an organisation, both in terms of their client base and the financial grants they can access. It really shows what security and stability can do for a charity – the work they do with children is transformative, and they’ve even started offering free yoga classes to all of the students who live at the property.
Streets of Growth, who are based at Hayloft Point, are a newer example who we partnered with in 2022. They support young people in east London and, like MahaDevi, they never had a permanent home. There were some really interesting historical findings at the Hayloft Point site and Streets of Growth have really embraced that element of the building – they’re sharing the history with their young people by teaching them to run historical tours of the area.
As for benefits, a central component of any successful social impact programme is that it’s mutually beneficial. I always use the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and that partnership as the perfect example of how partnerships can work for every party.
Students donate the items that they no longer want throughout the year, and through this we’ve raised over £1.5 million since 2017 – a considerable amount of money. It benefits our frontline teams by helping them to deal with waste during turnaround; it benefits students by providing a quick and easy way to get rid of items while moving out; and it works for the BHF through the fundraising element.
What’s next for Unite Students’ social impact programme?
We have some new buildings in the pipeline which will include community spaces, so we’ll be looking to fill those with the right community partners further down the line. In the meantime, we want to make it as simple as possible for teams to get involved in Positive Impact; a running theme from both my experience of working in operations, and what I now hear in my current role, is how much teams want to volunteer and give back to their local community, but they don’t know how to and struggle to find the time to do so. What we can do centrally to make that possible? That’s the question I want to answer in the next year.
Furthering our impact measurement is also a top priority – we want to understand exactly what impact our time, work and effort on community projects and partnerships has on local communities, and how it supports the people who need it.
And finally, our first Positive Impact awards are coming at the end of 2023 – I’m really looking forward to the judging process for projects and finding out more about what they’ve been doing so far this year, as well as recognising their hard work through giving out those awards.
You can learn about some of our local community projects here.