When Pat Summitt, head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, died from Alzheimer's disease in June 2016, her death shook the campus community. Summitt was a legend on campus and in the sports world, winning more games than any other coach in NCAA history during her 38-year career at UT. An estimated 7,000 fans and loved ones attended her memorial service in July at the Thompson-Boling arena, where they celebrated her life surrounded by hundreds of flowers.
The day after the memorial, serendipitously, UT held its inaugural Volunteering with the Vols (short for the school nickname, the Volunteers), a day of service that engaged 100 to 150 participants, about 50 of whom were alumni. Forty-seven participants volunteered at Random Acts of Flowers, a Knoxville-based nonprofit that delivers recycled flowers to patients in health care facilities. The organization had collected the bouquets that adorned the arena. Using the flowers from Summitt's remembrance, the service day volunteers created 372 bouquets that were delivered to Alzheimer's and memory care patients at five sites.
"It was an emotional moment when we got there and realized what we were doing," says Taylor Thomas, director of alumni student recruitment and scholarship at UT. "When our alumni found out where the flowers had come from, they were so pleased. The service project became much more meaningful."
For UT, a day of service makes sense since volunteering is an integral part of its brand and Tennessee is nicknamed the "volunteer state." But for many institutions, service days might at first seem counterproductive. You're sending your alumni into the community to volunteer with other organizations when what you really want is for them to engage with your university.
Yet many institutions have discovered that offering a day of service actually strengthens alumni's bond with the university. Allowing alumni, students, and faculty the opportunity to give back to their community fosters a sense of pride in the institution. "There's a certain sense or metric that isn't quantifiable," Thomas says. "If even three people show up to a site and they feel like they're a part of the Volunteer family, that's a benefit."
Service has other perks for institutions-from enabling them to identify new alumni leaders to boosting the university's brand and reputation. Here's how paying it forward can pay off.
Like UT, service is deeply rooted in the College of the Holy Cross' mission. As a Jesuit institution, its motto is: "Men and women for others." In 1997, students at the Massachusetts college launched what is now one of the most well-established service day programs in the country: Holy Cross Cares Day, a series of service days.
Giving back to others is the foundation of the event, but the institution has also seen practical benefits for recruitment. Thomas Cadigan, associate director of alumni relations, says Holy Cross Cares Day helps the college connect with prospective students who live in areas where Holy Cross has traditionally had fewer applicants.
"A national alumni effort expands our footprint to nontraditional places," he says. "Holy Cross has historically been a Northeast school, and a lot of our students come from places like New York City. More and more, our base has expanded, and we see alumni move into new areas that we're trying to recruit from. Having a Cares Day in San Francisco or Texas helps us reach new potential students. It's huge from an admissions and communications standpoint."
This spring, more than 500 alumni participated in Holy Cross Cares Day at 28 sites across the U.S. in 23 different cities. Participants volunteered in inner-city Catholic schools, soup kitchens, low-income housing facilities, and clothing distribution outlets.
Cadigan says Holy Cross Cares Day has been a great way to engage alumni who aren't excited about traditional networking events. Cocktail parties can be awkward for some, but alumni blossom when serving hot lunches at homeless shelters or painting elementary schools alongside other alumni.
"Their passion is the Cares Day, and that's their interaction with Holy Cross," Cadigan says. "It's how they stay connected and meet other alumni in their area. It's a perfect storm because they get to help a local nonprofit, too."
Service days can also breed future alumni leaders. One of the biggest accomplishments of Yale University's Day of Service is that it's created a pipeline of volunteers, say Alisa Masterson, assistant director for alumni relations at the Association of Yale Alumni, and Nory Babbitt, senior director for club and association relations at the Connecticut institution. Many volunteers start out by attending the day of service and then rise through the ranks, becoming more deeply involved with the institution over the years. More than half of the governors sitting on the alumni board have participated in the day of service since it launched in 2009, Babbitt says.
The Yale Day of Service is a massive undertaking. In 2016, more than 3,500 people participated at 250 service sites in 20 countries. To pull it off, Masterson gives volunteers, particularly the project leaders, the resources they need to do their job well.
"We provide the day of service framework, but it has to be local groups or volunteers taking the lead," Masterson says. "They really have to take ownership of it, and that helps us develop great leaders."
Service day volunteers have struggled with sites that don't have enough work for volunteers or are generally disorganized. To help prevent these issues, Yale provides its volunteer leaders with an organizer's toolkit to help plan and implement a successful service project, including a suggested timeline, advice on what information to include in a registration confirmation email, a liability release form, and tips for using social media and taking photos.
No time or resources to create your own toolkit? Babbitt and Masterson say adapt what they developed for Yale.
"The more people who are out there doing things," Babbitt says, "the better for all of us."
Alumni relations professionals say that most of the time spent on service days is in the planning and marketing of the event. Stanford University starts preparing volunteers for May's Beyond the Farm alumni day of service as early as January with a save-the-date email, says Katherine Toy, associate director of alumni volunteer engagement at the Stanford Alumni Association. The California institution follows up in February with a call for project leaders, reaching out to alumni in the biggest alumni markets, past project leaders, and anyone who volunteered after receiving the save-the-date notice.
The name, Beyond the Farm, alludes to the campus's history as founders Jane and Leland Stanford's stock farm and encourages students and alumni to engage with communities beyond campus. Activities include packing art supplies for underfunded schools, planting native species at a national park, and building homes in low-income communities.
Stanford asks the project leaders to fill out a Google form with details about their proposal, such as the project title and location, a description with specific volunteer tasks, contact information for the project community partner, whether children can participate, and the minimum and maximum number of volunteers. To help leaders create the best possible event, the university created a series of videos featuring former project leaders discussing topics such as identifying a project, coordinating it, and recruiting volunteers.
Beyond the Farm helps Stanford connect with a diverse group of alumni, from recent graduates to alumni of color to graduate program alumni. The Stanford National Black Alumni Association has been a standout leader in Beyond the Farm and encourages its chapters to hold service day projects, Toy says. The group developed a college-readiness model that helps alumni share their experiences and tips about preparing for college, including discussing courses, activities, leadership, and the application process. If members don’t have another project lined up, the association has the prepackaged model ready to go and urges local chapters to use it.
“Alums appreciate that Stanford has helped them be a part of a community that’s giving back,” Toy says. “That generates goodwill for the university among alumni and the community at large.”
Days of service are a long-term investment. Alumni gifts won’t double in a quarter, and you may not immediately recruit the next chair of your institution’s board. But service days sow seeds of altruism with alumni that can grow into tangible benefits. Service days can expand your recruitment opportunities into new areas. For some alumni, service days are a gateway toward getting more involved with the institution and becoming a leader. They bring together alumni who might not otherwise meet or feel like a part of your institution and affirm their identity as graduates of your school. While they’re breaking down boxes at a day-of-service site, you’re breaking down barriers with them.
Virgie Townsend is a freelance writer and editor living in Syracuse, New York.