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How our community projects are creating a positive impact

1 February 2024

[Edited 06/02/2024] Sustainability at Unite Students isn’t just about reducing carbon – it’s also about having a positive impact on local communities. Through our Positive Impact programme, many of our teams have set up community projects to give back to their local area. 

We’ve showcased four projects, and shared how our teams have worked with students, organisations and universities to create a positive social impact. 

Since 2012, student numbers in the UK have grown by more than a fifth. More students means more student housing – in some cases, causing tensions between local communities and universities due to ‘studentification’; that is, the domination of a local area by students and student housing. 

So, how can we foster better relationships with local communities? Our recent podcast episode ‘The future of social impact in Higher Education’ explored universities and purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) providers’ social impact projects, and at Unite Students, this comes in the form of our ‘Positive Impact’ social impact programme. 


Positive Impact in the community

Launched in 2014, our Positive Impact programme encourages our teams to complete sustainable activities throughout the year, including an optional long-term community project. At the end of the year, teams are audited and can achieve one of three tiered awards. Bronze – the minimum expected of our teams – requires teams to provide and promote donation points for the British Heart Foundation and a local food bank and show an understanding of our charity match and volunteering schemes. At least 15% of the team have to volunteer over the course of the year. 

Silver and Gold can only be achieved if a team conducts a long-term community project.  These projects should work towards a wider goal for the team, such as building communication or improving relationships with the local community or university partners.

“Our teams want to contribute to our sustainability strategy, and this is how their efforts align with that. It gives them 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,” said Ivy Yarrow, Social Impact Manager, in a recent interview. “No one knows better than our teams what’s needed in the areas 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.” 

In 2023, 33 new community projects (36 projects in total) were registered across the business, with nine teams achieving Gold. Here’s a selection of our Gold- and Silver-winning projects where our teams are really making a difference: 


GOLD: Sheffield – Sheffield Children’s Hospital and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice  

Our Sheffield team prepares for their charity abseil at Sheffield Hallam University

Our Sheffield team began supporting Sheffield Children’s Hospital in 2022, with gift donations at Christmas and Easter as well as a charity abseil at Sheffield Hallam University – but their project really came into its own in 2023.  

To welcome them to their new home, the team gave each Sheffield resident a pin badge featuring Theo, the hospital’s bear mascot. Donation buckets on the reception front desk raised more than £700, with international students often donating any leftover change before heading home for the summer. The team also recreated the previous year’s holiday gift drives and charity abseil, which raised just shy of £4,000 with the charity match scheme – almost double the previous year’s total. 

All donations from 2023 have gone towards the hospital’s fundraising for the construction of a National Centre for Child Health Technology, a world-class research and technology centre to be built in Sheffield.

Our Sheffield team on a volunteering day in the garden at Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice

But the team wanted to do even more – and so they also struck up a relationship with Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice. Using their volunteering hours, the team tidied up the hospice garden by weeding flowerbeds in April, before a second volunteering day saw them sorting the hospice’s fundraising cupboard and organising items for a charity tombola. 

Unsurprisingly, the team were awarded a Gold for their efforts. “The project is one of my favourite parts about working for Unite Students,” says Hollie Street, General Manager for Sheffield. “Not only do we get to make a difference to the local community, but it brings the team together as one – the volunteering days are so positive for morale.” 

Her favourite part of the project is the annual abseil. “It’s now a tradition within our team, and team members will talk about it throughout the year,” she says. “We’ve even had team members take part despite a fear of heights!” 


GOLD: Insight & Analytics, Risk & Assurance and Procurement – Young Bristol

Our Procurement team on a volunteering day at Youth Bristol's Hartcliffe youth centre, as part of their community project.

Three of our Bristol-based support teams – Insight, Risk and Procurement – banded together to support Young Bristol, a local youth charity. Although the charity works across Bristol, our three teams decided to focus their efforts in Hartcliffe, an area to the south of the city which includes some of Bristol’s most deprived neighbourhoods. 

For 2023, the teams conducted research to investigate the needs of the local community – a great use of their existing skill sets. This research would help the charity to allocate funds to where they’d have the most impact, as well as identify opportunities for potential partnerships in the area. 

The teams surveyed members of the community to understand what the community needed from the youth club. Film and game nights were the most-requested services by respondents, with evenings the most popular choice for when these should take place. The survey was supplemented by visits to community stakeholders such as local councillors, the police and community officers to understand some of the challenges and opportunities in the area in more depth. 

Team members who wanted to get more hands-on had an opportunity to support some light refurbishment at the youth centre. With the centre’s wellbeing garden and car park being in need of maintenance, the Procurement team used a volunteering day to tidy up the garden and plant some new seeds.  

“All three teams showed exceptional dedication – everyone contributed to the project, and the active involvement of senior leadership was instrumental,” says Compliance & Assurance Manager Furqan Zafar. “Hearing stories from young people and their parents about how the youth clubs have positively influenced their lives and the community as a whole was so impactful.” 

The next stage of the project will see the teams run sessions on CV writing and interview preparation to support the young people who use the youth club, to help them to succeed in future. 


SILVER: Aberdeen – ‘Grey to Green’ litter pick project  

Our Aberdeen team on one of their litter picks as part of their community project.

Aberdeen is known as the ‘Granite City’ due to its abundance of grey buildings – but our Aberdeen team’s project has a green focus. The team has taken the simple idea of litter-picking and turned it into a city-wide collaborative project, working with students, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen City Council and the city’s other PBSA providers to pick litter across five sites.  

The project  led to 80 large bags of litter being removed from Aberdeen’s green areas in 2023, with 16 students volunteering. A clean-up of Seaton Park, one of the city’s largest parks, is planned to become an annual event. 

The team is also pushing to do more around the city, including charity toy drives for a local children’s home and delivering Christmas cards to families experiencing hardship through Cyrenians, a Scottish homelessness charity. 

Gary McLennan, Student Experience Manager, says, “My favourite part has been showing our residents how beautiful our city is. Some of the areas that we litter pick aren’t places that students would typically visit, but it shows Aberdeen’s green spaces at their best. The project helps to feed that community spirit that we want our residents to feel while staying with us, and integrates us into our local community by giving back. 

“The team have worked really hard this year to hit silver – and we can’t wait to get gold!” 


GOLD: IT – TechBridge  

Our Bristol-based IT team’s ‘TechBridge’ project is really three projects rolled into one. Each project uses the team’s technical wizardry to create a positive social impact. 

The first involved collecting old IT equipment, refurbishing suitable equipment and donating it to non-profit organisations. So far, 20 donations have been made through Socialbox, a community interest company which donates tech to refugees, elderly people in isolation and people experiencing homelessness as they prepare to move from shelters to permanent accommodation. 

The second was supporting the Unite Foundation – an independent charity set up by Unite Students which provides accommodation scholarships for care leavers and estranged young people – to improve their software and use of technology. The team made significant improvements to their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, allowing the Foundation to track communications, student applications and the progression of Foundation students through their course. 

Training was also delivered to help the team make the most of the tech available. “We’re already seeing the benefits, which will further streamline our 2024/25 scholarship cycle,” says the Foundation’s Head of Operations, Helen Arber. “We now have improved efficiency, effectiveness and reporting capacity – win win!” 

Finally, the team set up an IT professional development network to support young people who wanted to get into IT careers. So far, this has seen 11 members of the team complete mentorship training, and six online training modules have been developed – which will be available to Unite Foundation students from early 2024. 

“Being part of a program that delivers sustainable, real-world benefits to the community has been immensely satisfying,” says Jack Templeman, Application Support Analyst. “This opportunity has not only allowed us to demonstrate our skills, but also give back to the community in a significant way. It’s a privilege to be part of a programme that aligns our professional goals with social impact, creating a sense of purpose and connection beyond the usual work environment.” 


Want to know more about whether your local team has a community project on the go? Ask your local contact for more information. 

You can listen to our Accommodation Matters episode on the future of social impact in Higher Education now on all good podcast platforms, or read the transcript here. 

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