Tap Into Alumni Altruism

Community service days boost alumni engagement

By Virgie Townsend

Volunteers for Yale University's 2017 Day of Service working at New Haven's Common Ground High School.

LENDING A FARMHAND: Volunteers for Yale University's 2017 Day of Service clear, plant, and do other springtime work at New Haven's Common Ground High School's organic farm garden. Over the years, the service day has created a pipeline of thousands of volunteers.

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."

University of Tennessee's July 2016 day of service.

BOUQUETS FOR REMEMBRANCE: The University of Tennessee's July 2016 day of service, Volunteering with the Vols, included helping the Knoxville-based nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers create bouquets out of recycled flowers for Alzheimer's and memory care patients. Participants crafted bouquets from flowers that had adorned the previous day's memorial service for UT basketball coach Pat Summitt, who died from Alzheimer's disease, making the service work especially meaningful for the Vol volunteers.

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.

Make Volunteering a Brand Victory

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."

Yale students volunteering at New Haven's Health and Wellness Community Health fair.

FIGHT FOR YOUR HEALTH: New Haven's Health and Wellness Community Health fair at Stetson Branch Library was one of the 2017 Yale service sites. Organized by Yale medical students, with support from alumni groups, the fair provided blood-pressure and other health checks in undeserved Connecticut communities. Visitors also tried out physical activities, including boxing.
It's All in the Prep Work

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."

If You Promote It, They Will Come

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.

National University of Singapore coastal cleanup crew.

FIND YOUR BEACH: In 2016, the National University of Singapore held its first day of service, which included volunteering with the annual International Coastal Cleanup Singapore. By the end of the day, NUS alumni, faculty, staff, and students had picked up more than 2,000 pounds of trash from Tanah Merah Beach.

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. 

National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan (in white) helps prepare meals for the needy.

GIVING BACK: National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan (in white) helps prepare meals for the needy.

5 Ways to Pull Off a Stellar Service Day

Let Alumni Decide What and Where to Serve
When the National University of Singapore planned its inaugural day of service in 2016, it decided to adopt a grassroots approach. NUS provided guidance when necessary but gave participants wide latitude to determine which causes and communities they would like to serve and how they would like to serve them. NUS also provided opportunities for alumni to start an initiative or simply join an existing project. "This approach gave people the choice to serve in an area that resonated with them," says Bernard Toh, director of alumni relations at NUS.

Create a Sense of Community
In post–service day surveys, Yale University found that participants loved knowing that others all over the world were volunteering at the same time—it made them feel connected. Other ways to foster a feeling of unity include setting a theme for the service day, encouraging participants to post photos on social media of them volunteering in their school spirit wear, and coordinating projects for which alumni are working together consistently, not shuttled off into small groups across the site where they'll struggle to meet people.

Let Them Network and Connect
Alumni often join service days to meet other graduates, so make sure there's a robust alumni base before you greenlight a project in a new area. "We don't want to expand into an area and only have one person show up and wonder, 'Am I the only one here?' " says Thomas Cadigan, associate director of alumni relations at the College of the Holy Cross. "Don't just set a goal number—you want to hit locations that are meaningful for your volunteers." Cadigan advises scheduling sites in areas with a substantial number of active alumni and a few strong volunteer leaders who can help plan and coordinate the projects.

Find Project Sites That Are Open and Flexible to Alumni
Not all nonprofit sites will be a good fit for your service day. Before committing to a project, ask about safety and security concerns. Domestic violence and abuse shelters usually have strict security protocols, which might not make them conducive to service days, as participants sometimes forget to register before showing up. "The best project sites are flexible and can accommodate the drop-ins," says Liz Nunez, director of alumni leadership at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Good options, which are also kid-friendly, include community gardens and tree-planting projects.

Invite the President
Institutional leaders can set the tone for a service day by volunteering too. One of the projects at NUS' 2016 day of service involved preparing 5,000 meals for the needy. At 6:15 a.m., NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan was decked out with a cook's hairnet manning the fish-frying station. Working alongside alumni, students, and staff, he fried fish for more than five hours. "At the end of his shift, he remarked that although frying fish was 'really hard and hot work,' it was a morning well and meaningfully spent," Toh says. Getting leadership involved shows that giving back to the community is a deeply ingrained institutional value and that staff at all levels are walking the talk.

About the Author

Virgie Townsend is a freelance writer and editor living in Syracuse, New York.