The University at Buffalo's alumni volunteer teams have seen a big increase in participation and engagement. Here’s what they’re doing differently.
by Courtney Yuen, Academic Impressions
When Clayton Connor looks at his volunteer management calendar he channels his inner Hollywood mogul.
"We always liken it to a movie studio that comes out with a big blockbuster every three or four months,” he said.
As the Assistant Director for Constituent and Alumni Engagement at the University at Buffalo, keeping his “audience” interested is crucial. In his eyes, big volunteer opportunities are feature films primed to make an impact.
“They’re the tent-pole movies. There’s a big summer movie and then when the holidays come around there’s another big movie to keep their viewers engaged,” said Connor. “We try to do the same thing with our volunteers.”
He spaces out the big opportunities or “blockbusters” every three months and then sprinkles in smaller opportunities throughout the year. This way the University of Buffalo is always top of mind for their alumni.
A More Planful Approach to Volunteer Management
When he started in this role two years ago, he saw there was a need to have a better developed plan for volunteer management. Connor, like anyone else managing volunteers, was running into the typical problems that he knew needed to be fixed. It’s easy to post random volunteer opportunities up on a website, but what if they don’t get filled? What if you get too many volunteers and then you don’t have anything for them to do?
“Everyone, I think, dismisses volunteer management as the last thing to do or an easy thing to do and it really needs to be looked at the same way the bigger event management and some of the other tasks are,” said Connor. “You need to treat it the same way you would your event management, your outreach, your fundraising.”
It became clear they needed to find ways to be more intentional with volunteer opportunities and planning. Volunteers are a strategic resource to an institution. Those who volunteer are much more likely to give in the future. So now, for each event, Connor creates a volunteer management calendar to track all of the opportunities. This helps make sure all of the “blockbusters” and smaller events are distributed evenly throughout the year.
None of this would happen though, if Connor and his team didn’t create dozens of opportunities for volunteers at events. It begins by creating a staffing plan and job descriptions.
“Every task that a staff member, even myself, is doing, is designed so that an alum could step in and do it if they want to help us out all the way up to doing the speaking engagements, the welcoming, running a crowd of people,” said Connor.
Within the last few years, commencement has become one of their big volunteer opportunities. He said it’s an easy ask and a light lift for volunteers. Connor’s team can accommodate as many alumni who sign up, so no one is ignored or turned away. They’ve also been able to step up each volunteer role, so it’s more meaningful than just greeting students at the door. Instead, alumni are prepping students for the ceremony, running the photobooth area, handing out supplies, or giving them advice for the future.
In addition to commencement and other events, Connor created volunteer opportunities for alumni who are not in the region by partnering with others on campus. In his earlier days, he realized his staff didn’t have the capacity to pull off some of the volunteer opportunities by themselves, so they looked for partners.
He said it’s important to remember, no matter what kind of event or volunteer engagement, you don’t have to start from scratch. Campus partners often have needs or projects that alumni volunteers can help with.
“It seems very common sense to want to create partnerships across campus,” said Connor. “Sometimes they’re under your nose and you just don’t think about it until you take a step back.”
One of his partnerships is with the Graduate Recruitment Office. Together, they coordinate alumni volunteers to do congratulatory phone calls and outreach to accepted candidates. The effort helps recruit grad students to the College of Arts and Sciences and provides a meaningful opportunity for alumni to participate in the life of the campus.
“That can be done by any alum, anywhere, over the phone, over email or writing notes,” said Connor. “Having that (personal) touch from an alum yields a better result of our graduate students who actually enroll in the university and then come in and have better, positive feelings about going to school here.”
Connor has imagined, created and continues to live in a volunteer management world that allows for more consistent and impactful opportunities. It takes more work but is keeping alumni engaged with the university.
“It feels rewarding to be able to create opportunities that resonate with our alumni and leave them feeling valued and appreciated,” he said. “I’m excited and eager to see how much more we can provide for them as our programs grow.”
As a side effect of this work, since volunteers started participating in events, his teams’ event net promoter score rose from a 20 to an 80. In fact, even their feedback participation rate has gone up nearly 15%. Now, alumni and students seem eager to tell them how much they’re enjoying their events when volunteers are present.
5 Steps to Do Likewise
To start doing this on your campus, Connor said there’s five basic steps to follow:
- Shift your mindset toward volunteer management – Don’t dismiss volunteer management as something “easy to do” or easily saved for the last minute. Invest resources and staffing time.
- Create a master volunteer management calendar – Document and plan all of your volunteer opportunities for the year to make sure you have enough “blockbusters” and smaller hits for all alumni to participate in.
- Seek out cross-campus partnerships – If you’re starting from scratch, look for ways you can partner with others. (i.e. commencement already happens each year, find out how you can integrate volunteers into the process)
- Design event staff roles, so alumni volunteers can step in – Make it your goal to facilitate an entire event, start-to-finish, with your own staff. However, design each job so a volunteer could replace them if they want to help out.
- Give superstar volunteers a voice – Once you start to identify a core group or particularly dedicated batch of volunteers, pick their brains! Find the people who seem most excited about the opportunities, give them a voice and be flexible to work around what they’re interested in doing.
Article: The Most Creative and Productive Ways to Engage Volunteers by James M. Langley
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