Morgan Stanley, like all investment banks, is full of ambitious people. But one day in December this ambition was opened to a wider audience as the bank welcomed seven teams of students into its Canary Wharf HQ. They had gathered to fight for the crown in the final stage of Morgan Stanley's University Community Impact Challenge 2012.
The competition saw participants from universities around the country strive to make a real difference in their communities, in just seven weeks. Applicants were teamed with other students and challenged to emerge from the familiar student bubbles of their university towns to engage with handpicked charities in the local area, putting their valuable skills to use for the greater good. They had been helped in their tasks by Morgan Stanley mentors, often from the same university as them, who were also there to see the conclusion of the students' efforts.
The teams were gathered to present the fruits of their term's hard labour. Seven universities were represented - Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, the London School of Economics, Manchester and University College London. The research, the bonding and the graft were behind them, and only the final hurdle lay in their path: presenting their experiences to a panel of judges, senior Morgan Stanley staff.
They were to be judged on four criteria: the impact their work had made on the community, the sustainability of their input, the quality of their teamwork, and their skill in presenting their findings. At stake was a three-part prize: £5,000 for their chosen charity, the opportunity to attend an insight day at Morgan Stanley, and dinner with senior figures from the bank.
This last task wouldn't be easy, just like the rest of their work on the projects. Tom James, senior manager at Three Hands, the organisation jointly running the challenge with Morgan Stanley, put it best: "Morgan Stanley put the students in teams of people they'd never met before, there was a very tight time scheme, and they've juggled this project with numerous other commitments. This makes the challenge a very rich, real-life experience that helps students develop skills and awareness, and will help them in their careers."
The atmosphere was thick with nerves - the teams had come so far and achieved so much, but a lot still hung in the balance. It was a friendly competition, but the students could be seen sizing up their opponents, sussing out which other teams were the ones to watch. The presentations began.
Pitching to the panel
It was an intimidating audience - expectant judges, encouraging mentors, hopeful charity representatives, eager rivals. Though the teams' charity work was hugely important, unless they could convey the work they had put in, the lessons they had learned, and the difference they had made inside the challenging ten-minute time limit, victory would slip through their fingers. Teams stood and fell on the quality of their presentations - tasteful video work and intelligent use of props helped lead the winners to victory, whereas technical hitches and the occasional shaky explanation marked the teams who fell behind the pack.
The presentations showed that students certainly have a lot to offer charities. Online skills and resources were deployed widely - charities without websites, or with outdated online presences were brought into today's digital world, with Facebook, Twitter and Skype all being used to reach out to young people in particular.
But as well as these relatively soft skills, the audience also saw that the teams had undertaken some real number-crunching and thorough analysis. UCL helped Body & Soul, an HIV charity, to size up a new market by researching and processing extensive data on similar charities elsewhere, and by surveying attitudes to HIV among the student body.
The team from LSE put their business smarts to the test by undertaking a feasibility study for their charity, Kids Company, who were considering opening a luxury charity shop in upmarket Chelsea. The LSE pitch was ambitious and, with start-up costs of £50,000, easily the most expensive proposal of the day, but the students were confident that the shop could begin turning a profit within nine months. The Kids Company representatives were thrilled - it was apparently just the type of research they'd wanted to carry out for years, but hadn't had the time or money to dedicate to it.
Hannah Christie, a representative from ReachOut a mentoring charity twinned with the Manchester team, described how working with her team "allowed us to take advantage of a resource we wouldn't usually have to improve our processes. They were really committed to the project and showed a sincere interest in ReachOut, and what we seek to do, which is to help young people get better chances in life."
Getting involved with a charity also had an emotional impact on other teams. Although the Manchester team's work was strategic - analysing ReachOut!'s recruiting and retention strategies to improve performance - several team members valued the charity's work enough to become mentors themselves. Durham's team, whose charity Durham Area Disability Learning Group (DADLG) helps young disabled people access employment, also took the time to arrange social events with people who use the service, and two members of the team have even joined its board of directors.
Andrea Jesudason, a member of the Durham team, described her experience with DADLG as "eye-opening" and "insightful", telling The Gateway that "going to the beneficiaries' houses and actually seeing what the charity does has been very interesting, because we don't necessarily realise the cultural difference between students and the local population."
But the students' efforts would count for nothing if the judges were unimpressed by their final offering. Supportive and searching in equal measure, the judges quizzed each team after their presentation, finding out what had worked best, what had caused trouble, and whether some of the bolder claims really held water.
A tense coffee break divided the final team's presentation and the announcement of the winners.
The final moments were swift and uncompromising. Runners-up: LSE for the charity shop plan. Winners: Durham for their work with the Durham Area Disability Leisure Group!
The judges praised the winners for their dedication, their commitment to the cause, and the scope of the improvements they made to people's lives. Their innovative approach also helped. Durham's decision to produce a compilation video of important moments in their work received high praise for bringing the project to life.
A flurry of victory photos, congratulations and calls to the, sadly absent, DADLG representatives followed. Laura Harrison of the Durham team told The Gateway: "It feels amazing to have won. We've put in so much effort and we've got to know the charity so well."
"The £5,000 prize money will let the charity set up a better website, revamping it and making it more accessible to the service users and parents so that they can communicate better. We've learned teamwork and time management skills, made new friends, and also gained an idea of the problems faced by people with disabilities."
James Rogers, the Durham Team's mentor, and an executive director in Morgan Stanley's Fixed Income division, was also delighted, saying: "It's been inspirational to work with a team who've been so dedicated from the start. They've been so enthusiastic about wanting to get to know the charity and it really shows that for them it's not about putting something on a CV."
"I went to Durham as a student, and I didn't really get involved in the local community, so this was an opportunity for me to go back and do so. Giving back is something we believe very strongly in at Morgan Stanley, and the students have been really good advocates for it."
After the event, the winners chatted to Goran Trapp, a managing director in the Fixed Income & Commodities division and a competition judge. Pleased with their labours, he told The Gateway: "It's uplifting to feel the energy of the students when they tackle the worthwhile problems and challenges the charities send them."
"A few years ago, we realised that students don't necessarily get to volunteer, so we were pleased to be able to present them with an opportunity to do so. It's also a way for us to show that we care about the community - one of Morgan Stanley's founding principles is to give back, and this is part of that wider effort.
"Some of the contestants were exceptionally good. All employers want to find exceptional people, and any would be very happy if these students were to come and join them."
The teams and their challenges
- Bristol's team was paired with local charity Community Resolve, and improved their website and explored new revenue streams.
- The Durham contestants were coupled with the Durham Area Disability Leisure Group (DADLG), and found a variety of ways to help disabled young people access employment.
- Exeter's team joined the Refugee Support Group (Devon), which helps asylum seekers in the county. The students helped them explore sustainable sources of revenue.
- Glasgow's team found themselves working with Carers Link, a charity which works with carers in a suburb of Glasgow, and helped them communicate better with young carers in the area.
- The LSE's team joined Kids Company, which helps children in central London. They explored the feasibility of setting up a charity shop to bolster revenue.
- Manchester's entrants helped ReachOut!, a mentoring charity for young people. They helped them increase uptake and retention of volunteer mentors from the student population.
- Finally, the team from UCL linked up with Body & Soul, a charity helping people affected by HIV. They set about opening the student market for their awareness-raising services.