What Happens When Volunteers Are No Longer a “Nice to Have” Resource, But Instead a Strategic Investment?

Volunteer management inspiration: Image of a light bulb on a street with a warm glow.

Most colleges treat volunteers as “nice to have” resource, but a well-managed volunteer infrastructure can mean better fundraising, stronger student outcomes, and deeper relationships with donors, alumni, and friends of the institution.

by Valerie Jones, College of Saint Benedict

The Scenario

In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted from a rural road in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The event made national headlines and united the community in support of his family.

Twenty-eight years later, their worst fears were confirmed.

As the grieving family began planning a memorial service in 2016, the College of Saint Benedict (CSB) offered to host. The invitation drew RSVPs from more than 6,000 people, including state and national dignitaries. Logistics such as parking, shuttles, security, media management, hospitality, and more demanded resources. With only two weeks to prepare and with all normal functions of the college already maxed out with the beginning of the fall semester, the college turned to the one resource that would make all the difference: volunteers.

Within 10 days, CSB recruited, trained, and deployed roughly 125 volunteers to support the memorial service. Volunteers worked alongside college staff parking cars, ushering dignitaries, greeting shuttles, guiding media members, tending to presenters, collecting condolences and hosting the family and friends of young Jacob. Volunteers extended our capacity to meet the needs of the community in very real and tangible ways.

Treating Volunteers as a Strategic Investment

Our rapid organizing of volunteers at the College of Saint Benedict was no accident. It was grounded in CSB’s culture and support of volunteerism. Seeing the value of this concerted investment in our volunteers at the 2016 memorial, we doubled down on this systemic approach to leveraging volunteers. Here is why doing so is important – not just for us, but for any institution.

In higher education, volunteers are often considered “nice to have” but rarely make the cut as a strategic, necessary investment. Most often, volunteers are used on a one-off basis, with little connection to the larger mission. As budgets tighten, volunteers and the systems to engage them effectively are rarely discussed as a key investment that can help colleges and universities to generate new resources and move the needle on mission-critical priorities.

Yet an infrastructure of well-managed, strategically integrated volunteers can have a profound impact on student outcomes and the institution’s financial stability. Proper volunteer management on campus can mean more people doing more work, better fundraising (87% of volunteers say there is an overlap between their volunteer and financial support, according to the 2014 Fidelity Charitable report Time and Money: The Role of Volunteering in Philanthropy), and deeper engagement with alumni, parents and friends. At the College of Saint Benedict, we have created a campus-wide inventory detailing every volunteer position on campus in one centralized database. We also have developed a standardized position description template so that every volunteer position is consistent.

How We Build a Volunteer Infrastructure

How do you move from treating volunteers as a one-off resource to developing such an infrastructure? How did we get all the key players on board and pulling in the same direction?

1. We gathered the team we needed
First, we convened stakeholders. Stakeholder buy-in for a project that is “long-term” at best (and “never-ending” if we’re being honest), labor-intensive, unfunded, and unpredictable is hard to come by. So we did what all good volunteer managers do. We asked. And we told the truth about what we were asking.

We asked the departments known for engaging volunteers – admissions, career services, and athletics. When they said yes, we asked people who might benefit from a new way of thinking about resources (units such as human resources and the marketing/communications office). When they said yes, we had a team representing six divisions across campus, ranging from cabinet level to front-line staff, and a collective, influential reach across campus into every other division or department.

2. Next, we trained together.
With the team assembled, we trained together. The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) and HandsOn Twin Cities guided us through 16 hours of training in change management theory, culture change pitfalls, and how to become a service enterprise.
The Gold Standard
The Points of Light Foundation’s “service enterprise” designation certifies institutions that leverage volunteers and their skills to achieve the organization’s social mission. According to research by TCC Group and Deloitte, service enterprises outperform peer organizations on all measures of organizational quality. These institutions commit to four guiding principles:
1. They view the volunteer ecosystem as more effective when all divisions within the organization participate in its development.
2. They prioritize volunteerism as a core strategic function.
3. They recognize that volunteer engagement focused on true community need.
4. They understand that getting a return on volunteerism requires making a concerted investment.
3. We created a 3-5 year action plan.
As part of our training, we developed a certification action plan, which we did with great gusto (laying out a full 3-5-year plan instead of just what we needed to do to achieve certification). Some of the first tasks of our certification action plan actually served to solidify the collaborative team structure we were creating. Here is a short list:

  • Commissioning MAVA to come to campus to provide all service enterprise team members, and any member of the campus community who self-identified as working with volunteers, an additional 16 hours of training in the best practices of volunteer management. Campus wide, we now have more than 50 people who understand the basics of volunteer management and how to use that knowledge within their own departments.
  • Creating a compelling case statement that the team delivered to the president, the president’s cabinet and the Board of Trustees to secure their buy-in. This statement includes a service enterprise vision statement, which anchors everything related to this effort: As a nationally certified service enterprise, Saint Ben’s harnesses the power of our partners in mission through actively engaged volunteers who prepare women to think critically, lead courageously and advocate passionately.
  • Establishing regular meetings to tend to the action plan. The team meets consistently for one hour every two weeks. This time is spent prioritizing service enterprise efforts, building campus-wide tools and resources, and implementing new practices related to volunteer engagement across campus.
  • Writing a definition of volunteer as a term of art for the College of Saint Benedict and then implementing that definition to create a common shared understanding across the entire campus.
  • Creating a student internship position (for academic credit) to assist the team with analysis, project management and deep dives into cultural practices as they relate to volunteer management.

The College of Saint Benedict became the first college or university in the U.S. to achieve certification as a service enterprise in May 2017.

Results … and Sustaining the Effort

We found that asking for buy-in for the initial training and certification was one of the easier parts of the process. Asking this same group of people to stay active, engaged and committed for an unspecified amount of time, with no additional resources (except the volunteers they have to go find, recruit and train themselves) … that was a harder sell. Yet, a full two years in, our volunteer management team remains active, engaged, and committed. In fact, the team is adding members.

Sustaining the effort has a lot to do with team culture. Here is some of what is working — these comments are drawn from a reflexive exercise during a recent team meeting:

  • “This work is absolutely mission focused. It lives above turf issues and is bigger than any one department, individual or process on campus.”
  • “We keep learning. We learn from each other, from the industry of volunteer management, and from the results of our collective work.”
  • “The team sets its own pace. Early on, because of the scale and scope of our vision, the team set ambitious expectations AND great flexibility to pace our progress along the very thin line balanced between our individual capacities to stay engaged and our drive to keep pushing forward.”
  • “This team confirms all that is said about great, high functioning teams. We trust each other, confide in each other, laugh a lot and support each other’s efforts. We do not judge each other. We simply come back, again and again, glued together by mission and purpose.”

As seen in the scenario that opened this article, we’ve seen some demonstrable and significant successes in both organizing and leveraging our volunteer infrastructure. What’s next? What does success look like in the future? We hope to continue:

  • Building tools and resources, infrastructure and processes and implement them across campus.
  • Working on culture change to help people through a conversion process where they no longer do some tasks but rather supervise the volunteers who now do those tasks.
  • Starting our institution’s initiatives and efforts with a conversation about where and how volunteers may be able to assist and add value to the outcomes.
  • Creating flex and flow in our campus system of volunteer engagement so it can withstand disruption, changes in resources, and conflict.
  • Investing in ourselves so that we are able to recognize, receive, and put to use the talents and skills of our volunteers, who are partners in our mission.

The College of Saint Benedict is currently one year into a three-year certification. We fully intend to ask for re-certification in 2020.

On Your Campus…

As you think about making a strategic investment in volunteer management within your own campus community, here are some guiding questions that may help:

  • Who in your community can help you learn and apply the best practices of volunteer management?
  • Who on campus has already figured out how to engage volunteers systematically and effectively?
  • Think about your students. What are specific opportunities to enhance student learning by integrating volunteers into classrooms, residence halls, and extracurricular activities?
  • Think about your donors and alumni. What are specific opportunities to engage alumni volunteers more in campus life and learning?
  • And finally, what are you waiting for?