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Fleet of Feet

Volunteers help campuses in countless ways

By Harriet S. Meyers


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At the McLean School of Maryland, parent volunteers serve as tour guides at open houses held throughout the year, connecting with parents of prospective students and sharing information about their own children's progress. They are an effective, important recruitment tool for the school.

At the Florida Institute of Technology, alumnus and board of trustees member Bino Campanini, an All-American college soccer player in the 1980s, returned to campus a decade after graduating to organize a players' reunion as a fund raiser for the athletics program. The reunion since has become a traditional element of the institution's Sports Hall of Fame banquet each winter.

At Juniata College, volunteers raised $103 million in the recent "Uncommon Outcomes" campaign, far exceeding the $70 million goal consultants insisted the college couldn't achieve because of insufficient staff resources. What's more, they did so at a cost of 8.5 cents per dollar raised—less than half the cost of the previous campaign, which ran from 1990 to 1996 and raised $36 million.

At these and other independent schools, colleges, and universities, volunteers truly are the lifeblood of advancement operations, allowing fund raisers, alumni relations officers, and communications and marketing professionals to achieve goals that otherwise might be impossible. In addition to offering extra hands, volunteers bring intangible benefits such as professional expertise, credibility, loyalty, and personal contacts to advancement practitioners who understand how to manage them effectively.

"The typical advancement office has a finite number of staff members available to handle an infinite number of activities," says John Hille, Juniata's vice president for advancement and marketing. Volunteers shift the balance, he adds, offering increased skill sets, diversity, and greater geographic outreach to advancement efforts. "They also can relate to a need or experience they share with a potential donor in ways no advancement professional can," he adds.

"We are much more successful with every project we undertake when we have volunteer involvement," says Shelley Greenwood, vice president of institutional advancement at the Latin School of Chicago. She cites the school's Live & Learn adult education program as an example.

Established in 1971, the Live & Learn program serves more than 6,000 adult students in the greater Chicago area. Each year, 150 volunteers help school leaders design the program's 700-plus courses, recruit instructors, distribute catalogs, and teach and monitor classes. They even volunteer their homes for cooking and wine-tasting classes.

"The Live & Learn program began with a couple of parents handing out fliers, and today, it nets well over $100,000 annually," Greenwood says. "Another 200 volunteers helped run an auction that raised $1.3 million for the school in 2004. We couldn't possibly pull off these activities without our volunteers."

Small starts, big results

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 64.5 million people—nearly 29 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and over—volunteered at least once from September 2003 to September 2004. During this period, a quarter of all men and one-third of all women volunteered, as did about four of every 10 parents who have children age 17 and younger. They spent a median of 52 hours volunteering, working primarily for religious or education (and most often youth-oriented) organizations.

Advancement officers who work regularly with volunteers say individuals often prefer to make small contributions at first rather than commit to projects that might require more time and effort than they are prepared to give. "Whenever we speak to a group of alumni, we ask them to give just five hours each year," Hille says. "Everyone says yes to our request because the commitment is so small. But once they become involved, they tend to stay involved." What's more, their level of involvement tends to increase over time.

Seven years ago, Juniata had approximately 400 parent, alumni, and community volunteers, although Hille says most were volunteers "only in intention and never were called on to provide the five or more hours of service that marks Juniata's current standard for counting volunteers." Today, the college has nearly 1,700 active volunteers who lend their time and talents to various campus-related activities.

What volunteers bring to the table

Every volunteer is different, of course, but advancement officers say volunteers typically offer these benefits to the institutions they serve:

Continuity. Alumni volunteers in particular are uniquely qualified to keep the institutional story alive because they share in its history. "Our school is more than 100 years old," says Catherine McClain, director of development for the Asheville School. "Volunteers from classes of years ago have handed down multigenerational contacts that connect us to our past and provide continuity as we move forward. For example, we recently honored a class representative who has served in that capacity for 50 years. He is celebrating his 50-year reunion this year, and his 'swan song' as class rep is to shepherd a 50th reunion class gift."

McClain says Asheville—like many institutions—has countless stories like this one. "Our current chairman of the board is a third-generation Asheville School alumnus," she says. "His father and grandfather also served in that capacity, and in May, he will hand his graduating daughter her diploma. Three- and four-generation families bring an instant credibility when they meet with alumni because their family history is well documented within the institution.

"Volunteer continuity also helps foster the sense of community that is a hallmark of our school," she adds. "Someone always knows your name or your family."

Good public relations. Volunteers devote their time and energy to causes and organizations that matter to them. If a volunteer cares enough about an institution to spend time helping its paid staff achieve certain goals, then that volunteer is conveying to others that the institution is valuable and worth supporting. Through their work, volunteers motivate and recruit other volunteers, stimulate community awareness of the institutions for which they volunteer, and enhance campus culture by bringing a wide range of experience and enthusiasm for service to students, faculty, and staff. They also set a positive example for students and other constituents by demonstrating the value of service and commitment.

"Melbourne, Florida, is home to a large retirement community where people with years of professional experience are looking for activities to get involved in," says Thomas Fox, senior vice president for advancement at Florida Tech. "There are people here with 30 years' experience in corporate management, fund raising, science, and other areas of expertise," he adds. "They become our extended public relations staff by talking about Florida Tech's activities with their friends and by increasing awareness of our institution."

Unique skills. Volunteers frequently possess skills staff members might not have. Because the Asheville School's student body is so diverse, school leaders on more than one occasion have asked student volunteers to help them communicate with constituents who speak languages other than English. "Our student body represents 13 countries," McClain explains, "so we ask our student volunteers to translate school news and solicitation letters for us."

The reward for these efforts: "We often receive gifts from people we might not otherwise have been able to reach," she says.

Peer-to-peer outreach. As Fox rightly notes, fund raising is much more powerful when solicitation calls come from peers. "They can swap stories of shared experiences and make special connections," he says. "People also are impressed that our volunteer callers think the cause is important enough to dedicate their own time and, often, their own money."

Personal and professional contacts. Volunteers often are connected to a wealth of resources in their communities and can better make a case to constituents that advancement staff might have trouble reaching.

Fox cites the evolution of Florida Tech's public radio station as an example of the power of volunteer leadership. "WFIT was the first radio station in Brevard County to go digital," he says. "One of our volunteers arranged a $25,000 gift that helped make that possible. He provided access to a corporate donor that we otherwise might not have had."

Strength in numbers. "Our alumni volunteers communicate with their classmates, organize reunions, and bring people back to our school," says Elizabeth Bridgers, director of communications and constituency relations for the Asheville School. "We couldn't possibly stay in touch with 3,000 people on a personal level without them."

What they do

Some volunteers prefer to participate in small ways, whereas others seek responsibilities that require major time commitments. According to Florida Tech's Fox, the projects they tackle really are limited only by the imagination and supervisory time of the advancement staff who must guide them. "It's fun to watch volunteers get invested in what you are trying to achieve," he says. "Their potential truly is unlimited."

Behind-the-scenes volunteers might perform tasks such as data entry or envelope stuffing and addressing. Others make solicitation and thank-you calls, conduct campus tours, and mentor students. Still others take on far more visible roles, serving as trustees and board members, chairing annual fund and capital campaigns, presiding over the alumni council, or participating as strategic planners and advisers.

Mary Anne Paul has been an Asheville School trustee for five years. In addition to volunteering for parent association activities and phonathons, she helps development office staff members do everything from drafting annual fund appeal letters and contacting prospective donors to sorting call sheets and stuffing envelopes.

"My role as a volunteer is to be an advocate for Asheville School," she says. "Whether asking for an annual fund contribution, decorating a locker room, or talking to a group of parents, I can speak directly about the positive impact Asheville has had on the lives of our students. Together with other parents, I contribute to the critical mass of volunteers that enables the school to meet its annual goals.

"By doing the easier tasks," she continues, "I'm helping free up the staff to work on bigger issues. At the same time, I'm working with great parents and building a strong community of people who both understand and support the school's mission."

Mimi Tygier and her husband Robert chaired the McLean School's annual fund for the past two years. "It was a collaborative effort with the development staff," she says. "Because our son had attended the school for several years, we knew most of the parents and had a good idea of who might be most successful, so I recruited volunteers. I also helped train the volunteers using the materials the school's staff provided."

Who's doing it and why

Alumni and parents of current students tend to be an institution's most active volunteers, although advancement practitioners say their volunteer corps consists of other constituents, too, including parents of former students, former campus CEOs, former faculty and staff members, community members, and even current students. Anecdotally, they say volunteers tend to be motivated to support a particular institution because they believe in its mission, wish to connect with others and the campus community, want access to information or people, or are grateful for the opportunities their education enabled.

"It is human nature for parents to want to have a connection with the institutions that are educating their children," Greenwood says. "Volunteering gives them a way to channel their energy and enthusiasm effectively."

Parent volunteers agree that volunteering is a great way for them to stay involved in their children's lives without infringing upon them. "By the time your kids get to high school, they don't want to see you on their turf, so I looked for ways I could volunteer behind the scenes," says Asheville trustee Paul. "That led to soliciting annual fund gifts and making thank-you calls on behalf of the development office."

Tygier agrees. "I believe so strongly in the McLean School and what it does for the children," she says. "I enjoy the connection I have with the school community through my volunteering, and I get great satisfaction from knowing I have made a difference."

In still other cases, volunteers decide they want to give something back to their alma mater. "I didn't realize how fortunate I was to go to the Asheville School until many years later," says Joseph Lindner Jr., a 1947 graduate. "I decided to get involved so I could help the school maintain its high quality and make an investment in students and the future of our country."

Care and feeding

Campus officials who rely heavily on volunteers to achieve big goals agree they bring countless rewards, but they warn that those rewards come at some cost. Staff members who supervise volunteers must be able to manage personality conflicts, take the time to discern each volunteer's strengths and match those abilities with suitable tasks, and be prepared to "fire" volunteers who are underperforming, or worse, damaging the institution's reputation. (For more on addressing volunteer challenges, see "Sticky Business.")

"I would not advise taking on volunteers and expecting to turn them loose without guidance," Fox says. Greenwood agrees. "Volunteers expect to see that we have thought through the process," she says, and that means providing them with written job descriptions and a detailed manual of procedures so they know what to expect and what's expected of them. "Volunteers feel more confident if there is a system in place that supports what they are doing," she says. (For more on volunteer training, see "Culture Club.")

Juniata takes its volunteer support efforts one step further. "We visit every major volunteer leader in his or her community within a three-year period," Hille says. "These efforts not only strengthen our staff-volunteer relationships, they also allow us to explore other opportunities for involvement. Although it's a costly way to communicate, it's the best way to make volunteers feel important and appreciated."

Volunteers agree that these extra touches can make a difference. "Having a good volunteer experience depends on the institution's leadership," Lindner says. "When I was chairman of the [Asheville School] board of visitors, I met regularly with the head of school. He and I shared a vision for continued excellence in [the qualities] that define Asheville School: character, knowledge, community, civility, and friendship. Helping other alumni and faculty develop students who are prepared for college and living and working in a global society continues to be rewarding."

No matter what role a volunteer fulfills, it's important to acknowledge the value of his or her contribution. "So many volunteers minimize their importance to the school," says Chris Fusco, former director of development at the McLean School, now director of development at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers, Fla. "That's why [McLean] holds small receptions with the head of school and invites all volunteers to participate. [Development staff members] want to make sure they know how much they are contributing.

"Volunteers require significant staff guidance," he adds, "but the effort is definitely worthwhile. They make special things happen."

Volunteer Profiles

Vernell Lewis

Volunteers for: Calvert School in Baltimore, where she is the parent of a current student

How do you help? I went into the office of my daughter's school on her first day and offered my assistance. Soon after that I was asked to help with a mailing, and for the past three years, I've volunteered on a regular basis. I take the bus with her to school and volunteer while she's in classes. I spend an average of 10 hours each week on development work. I send out mailings, do paperwork, file, and perform other office tasks. Outside of school volunteering, I represent my neighborhood on a planning committee and work for a food pantry at my church.

Why do you volunteer? I want to be involved in my child's education. Volunteering gives me a good chance to get to know the teachers and staff and have access to administrators. I also believe in giving something back to the school that is giving so much to my daughter, who is a scholarship student.

What support do you receive from the institution? By volunteering, I'm kept informed of what's going on at the school [in regard to] events and activities in which my daughter is involved.

What about volunteering do you find most enjoyable? I feel like I'm doing something that makes a difference. I especially like to be involved and stay informed. Volunteering makes me feel better about myself.--HSM


Judi William

Volunteers for: Florida Institute of Technology

How do you help? I was restoring our house and working with architects, and eventually the wallpaper designer led me to the textile design program at Florida Tech. I read a newspaper article about an event being planned to raise funds for the program, so I called the development office to offer my help. I started out by taking refreshments to a planning meeting, and before long, I got very involved. I brought in architects, instructors from other schools, and other professionals from our community to help organize the event. I tracked invitations, arranged seating, and coordinated lots of behind-the-scenes details. I also am an unofficial ambassador for the campus and help recruit potential students. My husband and I also serve as surrogate parents to new students from out of town.

Why do you volunteer? Florida Tech is growing and is very important to our community. I want to see it grow well. As a member of the community, I'm happy to help in any way I can.

What support do you receive from the institution? I find out what activities [Florida Tech] is planning and what changes leaders are planning to make.

What about volunteering do you find most enjoyable? The fund-raising event we held was the most beautiful event I've ever seen, and I was proud to be a part of it. I enjoyed working with the members of our committee, the guests who attended, and the Florida Tech advancement staff.--HS


Judy Carmack York

Volunteers for: Latin School of Chicago, where she is a senior trustee and parent of three former students

How do you help? My volunteer days started with a bang back in 1977. Before my oldest child was even enrolled, my friends were organizing the Latin School's adult education program, and they asked me to write the catalog. I also helped teach and monitor some of the adult education classes. That was the start of my volunteering at the Latin School, and I never stopped. I was president of the Parents' Council, took charge of the thrift shop, co-chaired the capital campaign for two years, made calls for phonathons, handed out fliers for adult education classes, chaired the auction, worked in the library, served lunch, and now I'm doing strategic planning.

Why do you volunteer? I believe in the mission of the school and the contribution it makes to developing lifelong leaders. I like having the opportunity to work closely with the faculty and staff. And my children loved to see me volunteering at their school.

What support do you receive from the institution? The Latin School is very generous in the variety of volunteer activities it offers, and its staff members provide excellent orientation and training for volunteers and board members. When I was chair of the board of trustees, I met weekly with the head of school to stay informed of school activities. Since I began volunteering, I have worked with six different heads of school, including two interim heads, and each has ensured that the volunteer's role is supported and encouraged.

What about volunteering do you find most enjoyable? Even though it has been seven years since my children attended, I still enjoy being connected with the Latin School and working with like-minded souls for a good cause. Volunteers tend to get so much more out of helping than the people they serve. When I'm asked to share my abilities and my time, I'm thrilled. My tombstone will say: "She loved to volunteer."--HSM


Adam Linsenbardt

Volunteers for: Florida Institute of Technology, where he is a senior and president of the Florida Tech Student Ambassadors

How do you help? The Student Ambassadors organization supports fund-raising events, gives tours to prospective students and their parents, and hosts open houses. As president, I recruit other students to volunteer for special events. For example, [Florida Tech] recently held a fund-raising fashion show. I organized a team of student ambassadors to be hosts and to provide a shuttle service to participants and visitors. I also volunteer with the Protestant Campus Ministry in our community. Last fall after the hurricanes, I helped elderly residents clean up their homes.

Why do you volunteer? I want to help the university reach its goals. I like to assist fund raisers and contribute to special events. And I want to let others know what a good place this is to go to school.

What support do you receive from the institution? Students must apply to be ambassadors. I expect the other ambassadors to select people who will be good representatives of the campus and who are committed to giving their time. We also need and receive very good support, including advice and contacts, from the alumni office.

What about volunteering do you find most enjoyable? I especially like working with others and helping people whenever I can. I enjoy representing the university to our visitors--especially prospective students--and answering their questions. I try to be open and enthusiastic and let them know about the advantages we offer.--HSM


Joel Ranck

Volunteers for: Juniata College, where he is president of the Juniata Alumni Council

How do you help? The Alumni Council focuses on helping current students navigate their career paths and providing support for alumni who want to network, retool, or change jobs. We also bring alumni back to campus to teach classes in their field, give advice to students, and participate in career day. Our connection to students is very strong and effective. I also serve as a mentor. Like a lot of volunteers, I got my first taste at the local level when I started an alumni chapter in Washington, DC. I was disappointed that initially I did not attract many potential leaders until I realized that just a few people can constitute an effective organizing committee. Over time, we developed a core group of leaders and continue to attract new leaders and participants.

Why do you volunteer? It's really quite simple: I like the college. I feel a debt of gratitude to Juniata for giving me the confidence to do the things I want to do and the training to be a thinker and achiever.

What support do you receive from the institution? My expectation is that the institution staff will support us if we contribute our time. Volunteering is a two-way street. The college sets goals, and we contribute our skills to help reach those goals, but the alumni council has its own goals as well. Sometimes our goals overlap and other times they are different. Still, our council has a great relationship with the professional staff. We are not afraid to voice our opinions, and we know those opinions will be considered.

What about volunteering do you find most enjoyable? I have a great time working with others who like the college. I tell someone who is considering whether to volunteer, "If you feel great about Juniata College and you are willing to make the commitment to focus a couple of hours a week on an activity, then you can have a great experience."--HSM

About the Author Harriet S. Meyers

Harriet  Meyers is a freelance writer baed in Columbia, Md., who also works with Howard Community College, the Verizon Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

 

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