How SMU Increased Its Alumni Volunteer Base by 500%

Image courtesy SMU.

Managing volunteers can be time-consuming, but anyone who runs a successful volunteer program will tell you that the time spent is well worth it. A committed network of volunteers is an invaluable resource for any institution.

Southern Methodist University uses the metaphor of "barn raising" to define its volunteer strategy, and it recruits its volunteers with the promise of what they can accomplish together. SMU has used this strategy to increase its volunteer base by 500% since 2009.

The barn raising metaphor resonated with us so much that we had to talk to SMU about it. We caught up with SMU's Director of Annual and Alumni Giving Astria Smith after her CASE District IV conference presentation, "Barn Raising: What the Amish teach us about volunteer management."

What challenges do you and your team at SMU face recruiting volunteering talent and keeping them involved and motivated?

Most institutions regularly visit (and revisit) the question of how to recruit and motivate volunteers. At SMU we firmly believe this is a healthy exercise. With more than 1,600 volunteers filling over 3,000 volunteer roles each year, SMU works hard to engage volunteers in meaningful ways that cause them to expand their commitment over time.

Once alumni volunteer with SMU we believe they become a “core member” of a powerful circle that creates ripples of success across the University and throughout the world. Our charge (and challenge) is to continue to share this message of impact with our volunteers so they understand how important their involvement is in the life of our University.

Could you explain the ‘barn raiser’ metaphor that you and your team have used as a guide as you’ve worked to overcome those challenges?

Even though it may sound a bit peculiar to compare an Amish barn to our institutions, these two entities actually share a lot in common. Per online definitions, “A barn was a necessary structure for any farmer, for example for storage of cereals and hay and keeping of animals. Yet a barn was also a large and costly structure, the assembly of which required more labor than a typical family could provide.” So Amish barns, like our institutions and their programs, are both necessary and require extraordinary resources and assistance to build and maintain.

Deeper analysis of our “barn raising” metaphor reveals this: “barn raising addressed the need by enlisting members of the community, unpaid, to assist in the building of their neighbors' barns.” The definition goes on to illuminate the fact that “because each member was entitled to recruit others for help, the favor would eventually return to each participant.” Inherent in these descriptions are two more elements that mirror our institutions: the necessity for volunteers and the intrinsic value and reward volunteers receive as being a part of this special community.

Therefore, like the Amish community, our institutions must enlist the assistance of volunteers to help us accomplish the seemingly insurmountable task of helping our institutions run as effectively as possible. Applying these concepts to how we manage volunteer recruitment, training, and stewardship can help our institutions approach volunteer management “the Amish way,” thus building successful partnerships that produce awe-inspiring results.

What does your volunteer engagement strategy look like?

SMU takes the concepts related to “barn raising” mentioned above into account when planning and executing our volunteer engagement strategy. First, we convey the necessity of each volunteer program and role. Contrasted with members of an Amish community who see the need for their barns every day, SMU staff realize we must be deliberate in helping the SMU community “see the need” for reconnecting, investing, and volunteering to build our institution. Therefore, it is important to not only devise a mission statement for each volunteer program but also to develop a case for support.

At SMU, core messaging platforms developed by our Integrated Marketing department are used across campus to help our alumni remember they are part of a family, or “SMU community” if you will. Our department, in turn, uses elements of this broader messaging platform to help build our cases for support when recruiting alumni for volunteer roles, event attendance, and even financial support.

To build a case for support we ask ourselves how we can convey the necessity of this program to our volunteers in tangible terms. Specific questions often include the following: Why is this program necessary? Exactly who does this program benefit? What would be lost if volunteers were not able to assist with this program? Why does this program require ‘extraordinary resources and assistance?’ What do we want volunteers to receive from supporting this program? A strong case for support helps volunteers recognize the importance of reconnecting to our institution in ways that further its overall mission. Likewise, showcasing successes made possible by volunteer assistance help keep alumni engaged and proud to be a part of something meaningful.

When engaging in “barn raising” the Amish community often recruits professional help to ensure the barn is secure enough to stand for generations to come. Likewise, we must put plans in place to ensure our programs can sustain themselves from year to year. We all know that volunteers who feel overwhelmed and unprepared are less likely to return. Therefore, we ensure volunteers are adequately trained and equipped with a variety of tools they need to succeed. Depending on each volunteer role, we often provide items like handbooks, step-by-step instruction guides, sample scripts and emails that have proven successful in the past, online tutorials, webinars, suggested social media posts, frequent reminders, and more.

We also try to ensure volunteers are engaged in projects that are meaningful to them while utilizing their unique skill sets, backgrounds or levels of expertise. We sometimes enlist more seasoned volunteers to assist with training and managing of newcomers. Finally, we work to set clear expectations for volunteers before they begin their role including how much time they should expect to spend, how often they will hear from us and how often we expect to hear from them. All of this helps protect against volunteer attrition.

Once volunteers are recruited, trained and actively working in a role we steward them accordingly. Members of the Amish community volunteer, in part, because they recognize that their efforts will eventually be returned or rewarded. At our institutions, we must share both intrinsic and extrinsic value in volunteering. Whether it is showcasing a faithful volunteer in print or online or simply giving them “insider’s access” to University leadership or special events, there are a variety of ways to steward volunteers so they feel rewarded.

At SMU, we have found using a combination of methods is most effective. From sending personalized thank you cards to providing “full-circle moments” where volunteers can see first-hand their impact on a program or participant, meaningful stewardship helps motivates volunteers because they feel needed and appreciated.

What results have you seen with your volunteer engagement strategy?

Since 2009, the number of volunteers at SMU has increased 500%. We have implemented new volunteer engagement opportunities as a direct result of listening to our alumni base and have recruited volunteers from over 39 states and 22 countries to participate in our “barn raising” efforts at SMU. Software-based volunteer management tools have been instrumental in helping us recruit, manage, and train volunteers as our numbers grow. In addition to giving their time and talent, 76% of our alumni volunteers also made financial contributions to SMU last fiscal year.

How can other schools replicate SMU's results?

Every institution is different. I believe taking a fresh look at your volunteer engagement strategy and asking questions about your program is key. Listen to your current volunteers. Why do they enjoy volunteering for you? How could your institution make the process easier and more enjoyable for them? Do you have clear volunteer roles that produce meaningful interactions? Do you have strong cases for support that demonstrate necessity in such a way they are compelling to prospective volunteers? Do you have a stewardship plan in place? Do you set clear expectations for volunteers with specific time commitments (and opportunities for them to leave their volunteer role?)?

If not, ask your “Amish” to help you answer these questions and execute any plans that ensue. Talk with benefactors of your volunteer programs, current volunteers, other staff and even prospective volunteers. After programs are in place, ensure they are scalable. Provide “toolkits” that can easily be replicated and sent when new volunteer opportunities arise (both from an institutional need and from a volunteer’s request.) Remember that, as a community, volunteers can help your institution come together to produce amazing results. Best of luck with your barn raising!

Follow Astria on Twitter.


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