My boldest move? Making alumni volunteering really count

June 1, 2016

The site was brownfield, not green.  Worse than nothing had been done.  Alumni had been contacted, hopes raised, ideas explored, intermittent contact made.  But then no follow through, no consistency. Gifts were not recognised properly, and asks were made by phone too frequently and in isolation from real communications.  Sound familiar? This was what I found when I took my first Director of Development role.  One alumna said to me, “Well, it’s been pretty poor up to now, so the only way is up.”

On top of this, there was pressure to justify increased investment in the team, to deliver fundraising income, and to prepare for a long-awaited campaign.  A planning study had outlined what could be raised, and subsequently sat on a shelf.  Leaders had been promised fundraising cash for new buildings. A campaign simply had to happen soon.

To help get things started, I was given the budget to get one new post (yes, just one!).  I could have recruited a fundraiser, but I did something different.  I recruited a Volunteer Manager.  This was new to universities at the time.  In addition, I set a target for volunteer hours, again unheard of in the university sector. Why did I make this, possibly suicidal, move?

I wanted to truly engage with alumni – to welcome their talent, ideas, commitment, and valuable time.  To put them to work to help our institution achieve its goals. To help our students and researchers.  Through volunteering, they would come back to campus and remember what role it played in their lives.  If they gave their most precious gift – their time – then asking them to give their cash would naturally come, later on.

Senior leaders weren’t that interested in alumni volunteering at the beginning, and we had to push hard to get activities for our volunteers to do. We had more offers of help than we could use and risked damaging relationships.  But we worked hard to organise career talks and mentoring, and created meaningful advisory board membership opportunities. These demonstrated the value that alumni brought.  Over time, we had colleagues knocking on our door asking for alumni to help them in many different ways.

Sometimes you just have to be BOLD and announce you are doing something even when you haven’t figured out exactly how to do it. 

I announced that one of our campaign goals was 2012 hours of volunteering by 2012.  Pretty stupid to announce a goal for something you did not know how to count, were not counting, and had no idea of how realistic the goal was.

But I was pretty sure that all the hours our wonderful council members, advisory board members, and alumni network members were giving had to amount to a significant proportion of that target.

At the end of the campaign, many thousands of hours were given by hundreds of alumni. Our alumni now felt more a part of our institution than they had for years, perhaps ever.  Time was being valued and put to great work.  And gifts followed.  Some of the very alumni who had said they would never give financially now asked, “How do I make my gift?”

Sometimes in life you have to stick your neck out, state your purpose, and make it happen.

If I had written a paper, formed a committee or working group, and carefully planned how we could run a volunteering programme, it would simply not have happened. If I had looked around for case studies where it had worked elsewhere, it would not have happened. There were no examples. No one had done it, at least not in this way.

It is so lovely to now see volunteer managers in many university teams. To see them network as a group and share best practice.

Maybe in some small way our campaign changed the way alumni are seen in the UK forever.  It certainly changed how they were seen at our university.

Be bold, state your goal, make it happen.

-Susie Hills, Managing Director

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