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What are Social Hackathons?

Heard of the term ‘Hackathon’ before? If not, imagine gathering a group of tech whizzes to hack a problem within a limited period of time. Our Social Hackathons are similar but we’ve put our own spin on it - they’re our problem-solving and solution-creating events that give UCL volunteers a first-hand insight into the third sector.

Volunteers are placed with a local not-for-profit organisation for one day, devising and implementing solutions to issues they currently face. In teams, the volunteers develop skills, learn about the Third Sector from its own professionals and connect with new communities across London.

Social Hackathons, February 2019

Where it all began...

Our first-ever Hackathon series started in February 2019 during Reading Week. This was our pilot programme to see whether these Hackathons could appeal to both students and charities alike. UCL student volunteers went into four local charities: Fulham Good Neighbours, Age UK Westminster, Yes Futures and Calthorpe Project.

They worked on a range of tasks: compiling a Business Case for setting up a trading subsidiary; designing a visually impaired-friendly website; devising a marketing strategy and engaging an isolated community.

You can find out more about each Hackathon from our Photojournalists who attended and documented the events.

"I met some lovely and friendly people" - volunteer with Age UK Westminster 

We also spoke to Rhea and Dorad, Hackathon volunteers, about their experience. Rhea told us all about her day with Fulham Good Neighbours - although not usually a fan of group projects, Rhea loved taking part in the project and seeing that her work had made a genuine impact. 

Dorad was placed with Age UK Westminster and looked at designing and implementing a more visually impaired-friendly website. Looking for a career in coding and IT, he was super happy that the Hackathon enabled him to combine his passions with altruism.

"I feel as though the charity will actually use our research, so it's very worthwhile" - UCL volunteer with Fulham Good Neighbours

For each charity, volunteers produced an incredible, comprehensive report on their research with suggestions and recommendations. These were gratefully received by the charity leads and have been presented to trustee boards and other governing staff members to implement solutions, with them saying they are happy that they now "have fresh new ideas to work with and implement".

Social Hackathons, November 2019

Back by popular demand!

After the initial success of our first Hackathon round, our second Hackathon series ran in November 2019 with London Museum of Water & Steam, Action on Hearing Loss, Holborn Community Centre and Museum of Brands as hosts. Students for each Hackathon were tasked with developing a volunteer recruitment process, designing a sensory garden for service users, creating a social enterprise and coming up with engagement strategy respectively. 

Our photojournalists attended two of our Hackathons and both have brilliant recounts of the day along with some great pics - read what happened at the London Museum of Water & Steam and Action on Hearing Loss.

"Social Hackathons are a great way to get out of your student routine and try something new" - UCL volunteer with Museum of Brands

Philippine attended our Hackathon at the Museum of Brands - as someone who wants to have a career in the charity sector, she loved that the day gave her a unique perspective on how a charity operates and engages their visitors.

"It’s such a great feeling to know that you’re having such a positive impact on your community!" - UCL volunteer with Holborn Community Association  

Maria volunteered with Holborn Community Association, designing a social enterprise in which the organisation could sell art to local residents, and she raved about how the the problem-solving nature of Hackathons gave her a refreshing outlook on volunteering. 

Social Hackathons, July 2020

No in-person? No problem!

This summer, we delivered our first-ever series of online Social Hackathons in collaboration with UCL Listen and Respond. From 13-17 July, we held five very different, but much-needed Hackathon events. 

With Covid-19 impacting almost all areas of life, including the charity sector, it seemed there was a different air surrounding our Hackathons like never before. Charities had to face issues they never saw coming, and students had a new-found desire to help communities in need and leave a positive impact, in whatever way they could. 

Some of these Hackathons included developing a more inclusive online employment process for people with Asperger's, helping a community organisation source tech devices to combat digital poverty for their beneficiaries, and advising a charity on how to redesign their website to engage a wide variety of stakeholders. 

Dora attended one of our virtual Hackathons, helping Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School explore ways to secure urgently-needed funding to keep the school running for young children.

"I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone interested in making a difference for a day." - Dora

"It was super fun to get creative and meet new people!" - Edie

Another participant was Edie, who was tasked with helping East London-based Housing Association Poplar HARCA boost their online presence and improve their volunteer recruitment process, in light of having to transition online to adapt in the wake of Covid-19.

Although this was our first time hosting an online Social Hackathon week, UCL volunteers really rose to the challenge and delivered exceptional results that impressed all five organisations involved.

Our UCL volunteers were absolute superstars; collaborating online over Zoom (which was still relatively new to everyone at the time), working across different time zones and having to meet their brief in 6 hours was definitely out of their comfort zone but this did not hamper the quality of the work they produced - a round of applause for all our volunteers involved!

These virtual Hackathons were a huge success and gave us the confidence to host more in the near future.

Social Hackathons, November 2020

Owning online Hackathons!

After the success of our first virtual Social Hackathons back in July, we went in to this week full of enthusiasm for the power of virtual collaboration and we were not disappointed! UCL volunteers yet again rose to the challenge, working with a group of fellow students and a charity partner they produced impressive project proposals, clearly structured reports and TED-worthy powerpoint presentations.

Some of our Hackathons focused on a move to digital and a need to learn about revising in-person methods, others looked at accessibility for disabled students, volunteer recruitment and inclusive communication strategies. The asks from charities were varied and volunteers were kept busy during the 6 hour day researching, sharing and presenting ideas. 

Liyann was tasked to help Business Education Events find ways of digitising their entrepreneurship youth programme. 

Our opinions and ideas helped the charity realise some of its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that it was less aware of, and also sparked some fresh thoughts in the charity about their operations and the work they do. - Liyann

Another volunteer Leina worked in a group to support new forms of intergenerational volunteering with Caritas Westminster. 

Our group was able to listen to stakeholder concerns and work in breakout rooms on how we would solve their issues. It was a very relaxed environment where everyone was enthusiastic and supportive. - Leina

Social Hackathons, February 2021

Fundraising products, international development and virtual reality!

February reading week saw groups of volunteers come together with five diverse partners to generate ideas on wide ranging topics with some pretty brilliant outcomes. 

Charity partner Empathy Action delivered a hackathon in which volunteers participated in a live empathy simulation and collaborated in generating ideas including new virtual reality softwear.

Other highlights of the week included a virtual visit to Kentish Town City Farm with a day of generating a new fundraising product, improving mentoring sessions for refugee and asylum seeking charity Salusbury World and generating engaging and accessible online content for Eye Heroes.

Wenxin has shared her experience of volunteering with Salusbury world.

We generated ideas to improve the quality of their remote mentoring sessions by investigating different platforms, communication tools and feedback from mentors. It is good to hear that Salusbury World will take some of our ideas into their real work and keep touch with us about the updates.

It was without doubt a jam-packed week with some long days of sharing thoughts, mapping processes and lots of learning!

Social Hackathons, July 2021

A summer of Hacks!

This July officially marked the one-year anniversary of our virtual Social Hackathons. Initially started last summer as an alternative to virtually connect UCL students with our community partners since in-person event couldn’t go ahead, these hackathons were quite the experiment. We weren’t sure if students or the community partners would enjoy the format and how it would be received.

One year and four hackathon series later, we can say, they’ve gone pretty well, actually.

Students have proven that virtual collaboration is no hindrance and have taken up the challenges that Covid-19 has created onto our community partners in their stride, generating countless ideas to benefit the host organisations.   

This summer, seven community organisations joined the Social Hackathons programme, the largest we’ve ever organised. We had students join across the summer period to help solve a variety of problems – including Our Parklife who wanted to recruit younger, BAME volunteers and our students devised ways they could tap into these communities.

Another Social Hackathon was with the Museum of Brands, who needed their current retail offer in the museum shop reviewed in order to generate more income for the museum.

“Social Hackathons a good way to get experience in the voluntary sector and help a charity in a short amount of time.” Elena Kayayan, volunteer

Paul Ho had joined for the day volunteering with Ataxia UK, helping them improve their online engagement, saying “I had done a few social hackathons before and really loved the experience every time.”

We are very grateful for the support we are receiving from the volunteer team at UCL and it is making a real impact on our ability to raise awareness and funds in the UK for vulnerable children affected by poverty and HIV in South Africa.

Elinor Middleton, Starfish Greathearts Foundation, one of the beneficiaries of the July 2021 Hacks

Students took on the challenges, with some even joined more than one hackathon (we think they just couldn’t get enough!). We really appreciated our volunteers taking the time out of the summer holidays to volunteer.

Social Hackathons, November 2021

A series of hybrid hackathons and another 4 challenges overcome!

In November 2021, we further championed virtual Hackathons, while some already returned to a face-to-face basis! The problems our volunteers set out to solve ranged from improving social media presence through marketing volunteering roles and organizing Christmas parties to developing educational material. Our volunteers demonstrated incredible resilience and a fantastic set of skills and persisted through the day to provide our partners with tangible, easily implementable solutions.

Ronald McDonald House Charities UK (RMHC UK) asked volunteers to help them plan a Christmas party for the parents and siblings of children hospitalised. It is hard, having a child in hospital, and being away from home, especially during the festive periods. UCL students tirelessly budgeted, scheduled and graphic designed all day to make sure all can have a joyful day while adhering to tight budgets and Covid-19 restrictions of the time

Everyone gave their best and that enabled us to approach the Hackathon problem from many different perspectives. Me personally, I am quite the logical planner, so I could contribute with the ability of planning efficiently. I structured how we were going to approach the problem, while the others were a little bit more creative, and they came up with the ideas of what while I was thinking about the how. And at the end we came up with this whole plan that was very thorough, creative, and within the budget.

Mary, a student volunteer to RMHC UK

The second Social Hackathon was with Evelina Children’s Heart Organisation, a health charity that supports children affected by congenital heart conditions and their families. Their service is heavily dependent on volunteers to support the various programmes ECHO do, ranging from hospital support to marketing and communications volunteering roles. Volunteers revamped their volunteering strategy by making changes to the roles to make it more attractive, looking at how and where the opportunities can be promoted and even drafted fundraising letters with the aim that the secured funding could support their volunteering programmes.

On Day 3, The Breteau Foundation - a global non-profit organisation that aims to provide quality education to disadvantaged primary school children - hosted our volunteers. The day was all about designing offline and online STEAM educational project ideas for young girls in Latin America. The online project, ‘Choose Your Adventure’, presented by the first group was based on a website that let young girls learn more about famous Latin American Women in different STEAM fields through a series of levels in a game-based format. The second group explored the possibility of having girls craft out practical items using single-use plastics and fabric to raise awareness on recycling.

I really enjoyed my Social Hackathon experience. As Activities and Engagement Officer, it was a great opportunity to learn first-hand what it's like to volunteer and support a charity, especially alongside UCL students. It was a really fun and intellectually stimulating day - I'd definitely recommend UCL students take part if you can.

Ilyas Benmouna, Activities and Engagement Officer at Students' Union UCL

Last, but not least - and suitably - our online Hackathon was all about online and social media marketing strategy, and how to improve St John’s Hospice's online reach and fundraising potential. St John's Hospice support patients by providing respite and end of life care and rely heavily on their stakeholders to keep their organisation running. Volunteers to looked into ways the organsiation could boost their engagement and reach more corporates and volunteers in order to generate funds and interest in the organisation.

Social Hackathons, 2022 February

You asked for it, and we delivered. In the post-lockdown world, flexibility is appreciated and we had the places on our latest Hybrid Hackathon Series snapped up in no time! This time we mixed it up a little and hosted two specialised Hacks: one for Postgraduates only, and one for the Engineering Faculty to engage Engineering students and challenge them in new, exciting ways.

We started off with an in-person event at Outward's headquarters in Hackney. Outward is a forward-thinking charity working across ten London Boroughs to support people to live with dignity and purpose. They provide special services to those with learning disabilities, those on the autism spectrum, as well as the elderly, and young people at risk.

Our volunteers split into teams to come up with ways that Outward could better use social media to raise awareness of their work, attract new volunteers and staff members, and help with fundraising. In such an overcrowded market, this was not an easy task but our volunteers managed to come up with a range of practical solutions. In the process, they made new friends and got a valuable insight into Outward’s work.

To me, participating in a volunteering activity is a liberating experience. Through volunteering, you get to know new people that you would not normally meet and get insights from them. The people I met during volunteering were always incredible people.

Rasyida Noor, Hackathon volunteer

On Day 2, Democracy Volunteers (DV) welcomed out volunteers for an online session. This Hack focused on increasing the reach of DV, and raising awareness of their work.

DV are the UK's leading election observation group who rely on volunteers to observe elections, assess the quality of them, and to report back to returning officers, the UK's Electoral Commission and to the government.

Our volunteers were presented a challenge indeed: How to better boost engagement than by deploying Election Dogs at polling stations? Not an easy one!

Despite the volume of the challenge, UCL students spent the day in breakout rooms identifying barriers to engagement, matching channels and target audiences, and deciding on the tone of various messages.

The product was a handful of platform-specific strategies on how to retain volunteers, and raise more funds for the vital work of DV.

On Day 3, Round the Blend hosted postgraduate students to help them plan their events and social spaces, feedback from beneficiaries and more. Round the Blend is a community group formed in conjunction with the community group Talking About Our Generations.

Their goal is to improve the lives and social interactions of London’s elderly folks by facilitating conversation groups and multigenerational community spaces.

Ponni and the hosts from Round the Blend

The hack they presented was focusing on generating information and resources for a Community Café that the group is trying to open. This café is to be a space that bridges generational gaps, through food, drink and community engagement.

They specifically asked our Postgraduate Students to help them brainstorm ways to collect community feedback that is essential for their fundraising and grant procurement efforts. Students proposed several hacks, including an application that would collect feedback from café patrons and facilitate technology education for the more elderly and less tech savvy participants. Students also used their research skills to help identify specific funding channels that could help the group procure the capitol needed to make their dream of a Community Café a reality.

I've always been interested in social enterprise in particular and I felt that it was just a great opportunity to give up some of my time to help an organization with some of the skills that I've obtained from my Ph.D. experience and to provide them with an insight in terms of looking at things happen, a different angle to what they might have sort of been considering previously.

Ponni Balasundaram, final stage Ph.D. student and Hackathon participant

Last, but definitely not least, a whole new format: ROMILDAMOR hosted a hackathon exclusively for Engineering Students. Normally, Hackathons bring together expertise from different disciplines, but this time we embarked on a new adventure: What if we ask a group of Engineers to help a charity fighting Modern Slavery and helping Human Trafficking survivors? The answer in short: great results.

Our Volunteers were asked to come up with a strategy on how to best market ROMILDAMOR's newest collection of scarfs - an important source of funds for the charity. UCL Engineers learned about ROMILDAMOR, the fashion funding project, and the specifics of the newest collection then moved onto brainstorming ideas on how to best market them. We were not disappointed and the ROMILDAMOR team left with fantastic insights on how to expand their fundraising campaigns and reach new audiences.

Partner Progress: The impact we've had!

Catching up and checking in with the charity partners we've helped!

It's all well and good hosting our Social Hackathons and hoping they have a positive impact on the charity partners we've helped, but we like to know we've really made a difference, and that the change-making action our students put in motion is still leaving a mark on the organisation! 
So, we always make sure to check in regularly with our partners to find out how they're progressing since our students took on their challenges. 
Here's just a selection of some of the favourite positive responses we've had so far.

In November 2020, we helped Age UK Westminster put plans in motion to promote their volunteering opportunities, both to potential volunteers and to their targeted beneficiaries, in new and innovative ways!  As of June 2021, these plans are currently being developed: from new event planning, to simplification of the application process, to increasing the reach of their volunteer leaflet. 

Business Development Manager, Carly, tells us:

The Hackathon was really useful and the ideas generated helped us to create new ways of promoting our opportunities to our audience. We are using methods that would cater to a variety of older people on and offline. - Carly Connolly, Business Development & Fundraising Manager, Age UK Westminster

As of June 2021, Lisa tells us:

The UCL gang that volunteered were so amazing. We felt like we had been given high level consultancy experience! In fact, one of the students then volunteered with a school for us. She shared a game that she had been developing with some young people at a school we work at.

The whole experience was invaluable. We are very grateful!

- Lisa Quinn, Business Education Events Ltd.

In November 2020, we also helped Business Education Events Ltd. with an array of recommendations for improving their social media and website. We're so thrilled to hear that the funding gained from our Hackathon has indeed gone towards putting all of these recommendations into place, and the organisation is at the cusp of finalising and going live with the new changes. We will certainly check back soon for an exciting update once this is completed!

Josie from KEEN London - one of our July 2021 beneficiaries - reports:

The topic of our hackathon was volunteer engagement, so we've focused on the importance of creating a volunteer community (e.g. through running social events). So far, we've generally had positive feedback from our volunteers on these. We're a small charity with a limited budget, so it was nice to look at students' ideas and work out which of these would be feasible with our staffing and resources.

Josie, Keen London, Hackathon beneficiary

As per our volunteers' ideas, KEEN London got Volunteer hoodies and hosted social events to engage their workforce more and foster a sense of belonging to boost morale. We are beyond excited to see the pictures of the volunteers in hoodies!

Action Medical Research, another charity from our July 2021 asked UCL volunteers to help collect donations and attendee details in a Covid-safe, contactless way during post-pandemic in-person events. In October 2021, they hosted a fantastic event with over 250 attendees where they implemented many of our volunteers' ideas.

Having the Hackathon contribution helped us to explore this service with the auction company and with the production of the QR codes and Linktree. We really appreciate the contribution of the students from the Hackathon – it really made a difference and helped us to be brave and explore this technology. The event itself went on to raise over £50,000 before expenses and was a real boost to our return to live events.

Ruth Dean, Special Events Fundraiser, Action Medical Research UK

Elinor from the Starfish Greathearts Foundation got back to us saying how impressed she was with students' engagement and scope of the problems that the Hackathon could touch on within just a single day.

The Starfish Greathearts Foundation is a charity helping orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa by working in partnership with local communities. They tasked volunteers with helping them develop their communication and social media campaigning to reach and engage more donors.

After implementing UCL Students' ideas onto their communication and social media strategy, she reports:

We have had positive feedback from our donors on the new materials we are sharing and are monitoring performance with an ambition to see growth in engagement and social media followers by the start of the new financial year. 

Elinor Middleton, Starfish GH

They also had one of the Social Hackathon volunteers apply for a permanent volunteering position at the charity! He worked as a Website & Google Analytics intern for a while and is still available in 'technical crisis' :) This just shows how many doors our Hackathons can open!

Ataxia's James was this delighted to receive our volunteers' input on their social media presence and the benchmarking insight the team provided. UCL students researched Ataxia's peer oganisations to help modernise social media and communications strategies. After the Hackathon, the charity - building on recommendations from the Hack - started categorising their posts better and increased their Instagram presence to reach a younger audience. As a result, reports Anastasia:

We have also started [increasing our Instagram presence] and had positive results. This has meant we have had new members coming along to our events and engaging with us, as well as more engagement and reach.


Anastasia Georgousis, Ataxia UK

The Breteau Foundation too, has retrieved a few volunteers from the Hackathons. Their Hack in November 2021 was about developing an offline and online education resource to promote STEAM skill sets and thinking for children from all sorts of backgrounds, particularly targeting those from disadvantaged communities.

Two groups came up with fantastic ideas of which one is already being implemented! Our Volunteers' creativity and resourcefulness impressed the Foundation so much that they asked the Group to join in the development and implementation of their project. The volunteers will be creating content for an educational website and app which will include stories and activities of women role models in STEAM education. The app will be made available as a pilot project to a group of 100 students this year to promote greater participation of girls in STEAM. The funding gained from the Hackathon is being spent on rights and development of the educational website and app where the content will be able to feature both online and offline. 

We were re-energized in thinking about innovative solutions and ideas for education resources in the communities we work in. It was a day that allowed us to take a step back, re-evaluate and think up new ideas with a group of very bright, motivated and engaged students.

Michelle Chung, Breteau Foundation

In November 2021, a group of UCL volunteers took on the challenge to organise Christmas Parties for the Ronald McDonald Houses across London - all with different Covid-19 restrictions!

You were a huge part of our Christmas celebrations, and we couldn’t have had such wonderful parties without you.

Natasha, Ronald McDonald House Charities UK

Students came up with ideas on how to make the festive period more enjoyable for residents, and the funding gained from our Hackathon was invested in the parties the UCL team designed. Games, food, presents, and decorations showed up in all Houses, and brought with them joy, and hope. Some shared meals together, some, however, needed more creative solutions because of the pandemic:

Just as an example, our Moorfields House is based within a hospital so they couldn’t have an in person celebration. However, we gave gingerbread decorating kits to each family that arrived and shared information of Christmas games with them (both found by your students).

Natasha, Ronald McDonald House Charities UK

St John's Hospice was able to implement some great ideas our volunteers came up with. After the Hackathon they immediately got to work and started reworking their communication strategy. Our volunteers raised the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility and advised the charity to approach corporate contacts with an emphasis on such matters.

St John's Hospice is now sending regular newsletter to donors and supporters, as well as increasing fundraising activities on various social media platforms. The funding from the Union was spent well on newsletter templates, flyers, and other communication materials to increase engagement and funds flowing in. Sophie, the Community Manager at St John's Hospice was also impressed with Volunteers' engagement:

The students were so engaged and went above and beyond to come up with creative and useful ways to support the charity. We were impressed with the amount of detail that the students put into their plans.

Sophie Gray, St John's Hospice