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Survey provides insight into advancement's outreach professionals

By Mark Kemball


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Stewarding a donation. Promoting a lecture series. Organizing a day of service in the city. Reviewing and awarding grants to local nonprofits. Packing and mailing 100 university sweatshirts to high school graduation events.

Among the more than 230 respondents to a recent CASE survey, these and other activities were all in a day’s work for anyone engaged in community relations for an educational institution. Ask who within advancement is actually performing these fundamental tasks, however, and consensus starts to break down.

The survey, compiled in April 2009, was sent to almost 2,800 CASE members who had previously indicated that community relations were part of their professional responsibilities or interests. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the data from the survey show that two-thirds of those engaged in community relations do not have those words in their job title.

Furthermore, there is no common office out of which this work is being done. Survey respondents cite communications and marketing, the institution in general, the development program, and alumni relations as roughly equal beneficiaries of their work.

Community relations professionals also say their work has a strategic, institution-wide impact and importance outside of their home unit. Meglomania? Perhaps. Yet community relations functions, wherever they are housed, are generally driven by overall institutional strategies as opposed to departmental goals.

Furthermore, the survey suggests that the role and practice of community relations in a public institution is somewhat different from its role and practice in a private institution. Respondents from public institutions were quick to connect their work with local and state government relations—an association that most private universities did not indicate. Conversely, professionals at private institutions were especially concerned about the fundraising and development programs of the school or university—a far less prominent concern of public community relations professionals, whose institutions frequently house fundraising in affiliated foundations.

Is there something that both sides of the community relations equation can learn from each other? The survey suggests that there might be.

Public strengths

In addition to strong government relations ties, public institutions have clear strategic marketing incentives for embracing the communities in which they are situated. Many would envy Marc Whitt, associate vice president for public relations and marketing at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky. A journalist friend once told him, “Whenever I come to Richmond I think of Eastern, and whenever I come to Eastern I think of Richmond.” Such seamlessness between the university and community, says Whitt, is the result of a president who defines his institution in terms of regional stewardship and its obligation to educate.

The university is committed to serving as an economic development engine for southeast Kentucky and central Appalachia. Local state, government, and business leaders meet on campus and identify and discuss opportunities to develop the region. “Eastern’s central role has enhanced community relations not only across the broad community but also within micro communities,” says Whitt.

It also helps that Eastern’s staff members are encouraged to be active participants in the community. “I estimate that at least 90 percent of the faculty and staff is engaged in at least one community organization,” says Whitt. President Doug Whitlock leads by example as Kentucky’s only public university president currently serving on a county public school system’s board of education; he is also a board member of the local chamber of commerce.

Vince Clark, director of community relations at the University at Buffalo in New York, sees a similar level of engagement at his institution, but for slightly different reasons. Following his arrival, UB President John B. Simpson created a task force to examine the university’s community engagement efforts. The task force conducted a community perception survey, which showed that area residents thought the university was uninviting and difficult to navigate.

In response to this feedback, Simpson worked to strengthen outreach to neighborhoods surrounding UB’s three campuses and facilitate direct and meaningful engagement with community leaders. Clark also oversaw the creation of Web sites, print publications, television spots, and social media to improve dialogue and awareness of UB’s impact. Clark’s office has developed programs that bring thousands of community residents to campus for educational opportunities, entertainment, and access to other resources in an effort to break down the perception of an uninviting institution.

Building on its commitment to access, UB is also developing the Downtown Gateway Complex, a $46 million building that will house a wide range of community resources primarily focused on job training and employment opportunity programs that support women and minority-owned businesses.

“As a major public research university in an urban community,” says Clark, “UB is increasingly called upon to play a key role in issues of workforce, economic, and community development. We are working collaboratively with elected, business, and civic leaders to meet these and other important challenges common in metropolitan communities.”

Private lessons

In the survey, 82 percent of community relations professionals at private institutions report that they can work proactively in the community more than 50 percent of the time, as opposed to 68 percent of those working in public institutions, who seem to be more reactionary to community problems.

However, most of these private-institution community relations professionals are balancing one or more responsibilities in addition to their community relations activities. Sixty percent of private respondents say that they devote less than half their time to community relations activities, as opposed to 53 percent of public community relations professionals.

The upside is that community relations offices at private institutions appear to engage with and support the admissions or enrollment functions more often than their public counterparts. Merica Stum, director of community relations at Lee University in Tennessee, has taken this one step further by creating and running a program out of the community relations office that enrolls the growing population of local older adults in college courses. “Our Encore program allows seniors ages 60 and over to take up to two Lee University courses per semester,” says Stum. “Seniors enrolled in the program become card-carrying members of the student body and can attend athletics and cultural events alongside the full-time students.” The program has attracted more than 100 seniors in each of the four semesters it has been offered, and reaction from the full-time student body has been very positive. The cost to participants? Only $50 per semester.

Attracting community members to campus—while certainly a goal of public institutions—appears to have a high return on investment for private institutions. “We have a good product, and we want people to see it,” says Tim Farley, director of community and government relations at Saint Mary’s College of California. “Our campus houses a stand-alone U.S. Post Office, and many community members like to visit the campus to use it. We also arrange summer-camp programs around cheer, football, and other athletics, in order to open the campus up to more people.” Community relations professionals at private institutions also are more likely to offer community members free or discounted access to campus events and facilities.

As community relations director at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian university located near Los Angeles, Ginny Dadaian is very conscious of the university’s relationship with other religious and nonreligious community organizations. “We have a high rate of community volunteerism and youth mentoring in our student body,” she says. “However, it is the physical access we provide to the campus that allows people to get to know us better. We offer parking space on weekends for local churches, ... and we have recently started to host the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. This gradual opening up of our space is physically emblematic of the opening up of interfaith dialogue in our community.”

Proving their worth

The survey results strongly suggest that community relations offices in both private and public institutions do not appear to communicate well about their work. Less than one-third of respondents indicate that they regularly measure the impact of their programs on target audiences, and only a slightly greater number produce a community impact report for leadership.

In addition, neither private nor public institutions appear to be actively courting community advocacy groups outside the immediate circle of their alumni. At Oregon Health & Science University, experts from the community oversee acquisition, maintenance, and cataloguing of the institution’s art collection and have designed policies for grounds and landscaping designs. Engaging such volunteers can supply essential professional expertise at no or greatly reduced cost to the institution, while offering segments of the local population a connection they might not otherwise find.

What cliff?

Although the worst of the recession may be over, its impact on endowments, college savings funds, and other tuition revenue sources is likely long-lasting. Data from the survey suggest, however, that community relations professionals do not currently feel, nor do they anticipate, the cold draft of the budget axe swinging nearby.

Although it is clear that community relations professionals know the importance of their outreach to advancement, they may not be anticipating the realities of institutional budgeting. The survey reveals that many of them lack performance measurements. Thus, community relations professionals would be wise to determine a data-driven answer to the inevitable question: How do you know that you are successful at what you are doing?

About the Author Mark Kemball

Mark Kemball oversees community and internal relations for the Office of the Dean at Oregon Health & Science School of Medicine, located in Portland.

 

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