Making the Most of Alumni Volunteers

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It’s critical that development officers at colleges and universities identify the best opportunities for harnessing alumni volunteerism. A December 2009 study by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch offers some compelling data to demonstrate the importance of volunteerism to fundraising:

  • The average amount given by volunteers is more than 10 times that given by non-volunteers
  • The rate of volunteering increases with education (36% of Americans with high school diplomas, 56% with four-year degrees, 61% with post-graduate degrees)
  • 63% of Americans cite a renewed sense of the value and importance of service to their community
  • 66% believe “true philanthropy” involves giving both time and money

Early this year, we connected with Jim Langley, founder and president of Langley Innovations, and past vice president of advancement at Georgetown University, and asked for his advice on how advancement shops at colleges and universities can harness the power of alumni volunteerism.

Shifting Your Approach

Langley warns, “Too many organizations are being too patently obvious about getting people to volunteer as fundraisers or on a one-off pretext. An institution will invite nominal volunteerism (for example, sitting on a board), and then in a few months ask the volunteer to give. The problem with that is that it doesn’t recognize the mindset of a volunteer or the sequence of contribution that a volunteer sees as important.”

Langley uses the “volunteer’s syllogism” to illustrate the mindset of a volunteer:


I will give you my time;
If I see that you are making good use of my time and are making a contribution,
I will give of my talent and treasure

“This is very different,” Langley suggests, “than the mindset of a development officer approaching the potential donor with ‘Come give us some time, and then we’ll ask you for money.’ That doesn’t engage them meaningfully, and it doesn’t invite them to contribute their talent. We’re locked into a limiting mindset about what a volunteer opportunity is.”

Langley offers these keys to creating meaningful volunteer opportunities:

  • Real integration into the campus community
  • Real work

In fact, the time investment can be quite limited (e.g., one day every weekend for one month, or visiting campus for a week), because the really critical contribution that ensures engagement is talent.

Identifying Effective Volunteer Opportunities

Langley offers a series of examples of how to create meaningful volunteer opportunities — “outside the box” opportunities that go beyond the standard executive opportunity of sitting on a board. All of these opportunities invite alumni to contribute both time and talent in service to their alma mater:

Forming a Task Force to Advise on a Specific Area of Improvement

This often-overlooked opportunity invites your alumni to act as stakeholders in the improvement of the institution, and harnesses their brainpower to move the needle in key areas. “Create a task force for a limited duration,” Langley advises, “and populate it with alumni that have a specific set of expertise.” For example:

  • Bring alumni who have marketing expertise to examine your institution’s marketing strategy
  • Invite alumni from the hospitality industry to come look at your residence halls
  • Invite alumni from food services to come look at your dining hall

“Look at the expertise of your alumni,” Langley suggests, “and ask where it might be most needed.”

Mentoring Student Leaders

“You have young people on your campus volunteering and doing important work,” Langley adds. “Advertise that to your alumni, and let your alumni know that you are looking for mentors and volunteer advisers.” For example, if your students have an investment club, invite alumni from the financial sector to come in and help the students understand the tricks of their trade (this also offers your alumni an opportunity to recruit for their investment firms). Other opportunities for mentorship might include student art clubs, students who are involved in emergency medical response, or food co-op. “You can even rotate advisers, so that these students are always learning from a professional.”

Involve your Alumni in the Rhythms of College Life

Langley notes that even an opportunity that appears as simple as coming in for a day early in the fall to help students move into their residence halls — helping them to move in their belongings and tour the campus — can have a major impact on the extent to which alumni volunteers feel reconnected with the college and with future generations of students who may benefit from their volunteerism and their giving.

Other opportunities to get alumni volunteers invested in your campus through meaningful contributions of their time and talent might include:

  • Bringing in volunteers to respond to a strategic planning exercise (your president can invite a number of professionals to come in for dinner and give their input)
  • Invite prominent alumni from the nonprofit sector to do a nonprofit volunteer fair — “let them speak passionately about the difference they are making in the world, and give them opportunities to connect with students”
“There is tremendous potential for bringing alive this latent volunteer spirit. Alumni want to be involved. If you do this genuinely and then later ask for their financial support, these volunteers are much more likely to give; they will be remembering the students they have been working with, and they will feel more affinity. Creating these human connections will raise far more funds for your institution than the traditional, more overt, fundraising-centered approach to inviting volunteerism.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations