All students taking the RHUL MSc in Sustainability and Management conduct a volunteer project which requires at least 20 hours of volunteering in a community or civil society organisation. This provides students with an opportunity to consider how sustainability is understood and practised in a particular organisation, as well as recognising the challenges and limitations which organisations may face in implementing policies which promote sustainability.
Students present their key findings and reflections on their volunteering experience through posters and presentations. This year’s event demonstrated very explicitly the diversity of sustainability as a concept and how significant the obstacles to achieving sustainability often are.
While much is said about the three pillars of sustainability – environment, society and economy – it is frequently the environmental element which is prioritised. Some of the students worked for organisations which focused specifically on environmental issues at both a local and a global scale. These included TCV (The Conservation Volunteers), Thames 21, Forum for the Future, CDP, MaidEnergy Co-operative and Keep Britain Tidy. However, in all cases, social and environmental goals are also part of the organisational aims and/or are vital in achieving the desired environmental outcomes. For example, conservation and environmental protection require an engagement with local communities and an understanding of social norms and values.
Social sustainability is a concept which is less frequently considered, but students worked in a range of organisations committed to social inclusion, community cohesion and heritage. These included Afrika Tikkun, Barnado’s, Lattitude, Oxfam, Reading Mencap and the National Trust.
Many of these organisations provide services and support which in the past may have been provided by government organisations. Civil society organisations have been key in filling gaps created by the retreat of the state in certain social and environmental sectors. While this may create new opportunities for local participation, it does create significant problems of sustainability in relation to finance and staffing. All the organisations rely to varying degrees on volunteers to deliver their activities, and there is an ongoing struggle to get funding.
In the next couple of months students will be writing more detailed blogposts about their volunteer work and reflections on sustainability in practice. Many of them have carried on volunteering after the compulsory 20 hours and some will be working alongside these organisations for their dissertation projects.
The volunteer project will be extended to become a compulsory unit on two other MSc programmes from September 2015: MSc Practising Sustainable Development and MSc Practising Sustainable Development (ICT4D Specialism).
Head of Department of Geography, RHUL.