There are few words a higher education alumni engagement professional loves more to hear or read than:

“How can I help?”

Getting asked that question is deeply satisfying because it means our message is heard by other activated alumni. It means we reached out through the right medium, we shared the right message, we motivated a new volunteer to donate their time… and best of all, they offered to work on an initiative that we get to suggest.

But even with this perfect lineup, sometimes it goes wrong.

Your Options May Be Limited

Many universities have core volunteer programs operating at mature levels; reunion committees, class agents and volunteer boards are the most prevalent.

Volunteer leadership positions designed to build regional alumni groups are often the most significant and meaningful opportunity for volunteers – and for alumni outreach and engagement.

That’s why, from an administrative standpoint, huge amounts of both human and financial resources are deployed to not only build these networks but also keep them operating over the long term.

The same holds true for volunteers. Depending on the nature of the role, significant amounts of time and effort are necessary. Unfortunately, this limits the potential pool of volunteer alumni. Most people aren’t able to donate a number of hours every week, much less every month… which makes their willingness to help a wasted opportunity. Since regional engagement is largely about events, that may also limit the pool of volunteers interested in planning or attending.

Eliminate Place and Time Requirements

Digital volunteerism — and its close cousin, micro-volunteerism — is steadily gaining traction in higher ed, for good reason. Conceptually, the idea of the digital ambassador is great: we desperately need our key stakeholders to consume and share content so our key messages can gain broad distribution. A Facebook like, a LinkedIn share, a retweet — each digital engagement activates a network we may otherwise not have reached. Core constituents who share content act as a megaphone to widely broadcast your content. If we’re lucky your message can go biblical as one share begets another share, which begets another share. Before you know it, your message has reached thousands of people.

And it’s possible to go beyond the like, share, or retweet. Some digital volunteer programs ask alumni, parents, and friends to create original content that can be shared on alumni-oriented social media platforms.

Asking volunteers to engage in a different way — and not requiring them to show up at a specific place and time — provides an engagement avenue that could be more appealing than a traditional volunteer.

But gaining the time commitment required can still be a challenge. Creating good, shareable content takes time and also takes skill. Another difficult challenge for micro-volunteerism programs is the necessity of changing an alum’s digital habits, web browsing, or app use. Do you ever check or use the app your alma mater has deployed to engage you? How often?

The Solution: Get Specific About Time Commitments and Reporting

What if we could devise a system — and formally manage and market a volunteer engagement program — that asks alumni for a specific time commitment such as thirty minutes or one hour each month?

(Your response to, “How can I help?” will be a lot less daunting if you can respond by saying, “I’m glad you asked. We have a program that only requires one hour a month of your time. Here’s how it works…”)

A lot can happen in an hour; from phone calls to students to checking in with other alumni, you can maximize volunteer time to get the biggest bang for your buck.

In my last post on blending the functions of alumni and career services, I mentioned the idea of supporting and encouraging alumni-to-alumni and alumni-to-student introductions as a way to teach students how to ask alumni for informational interviews.

Although we’re in the early phases of developing this program at Longwood University, we believe that there’s definitely a framework for meaningful engagement, one that gets to the core of network building — and that provides the perfect way to take advantage of digital- and micro-volunteerism.

Tracking volunteerism in this regard becomes self-reported, and therefore that process must be super-duper easy. Asking for 30 minutes a month might be appealing to those proactive alumni volunteers that offer to help, but for retaining them too. If it’s simple, meaningful, and doesn’t require place and time, it’s probably tough to say no to, right?


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


Ryan Catherwood

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