The skill of stewardship has never been more critical than it is today in higher education. Historically, stewardship has been focused on major prospects. In this new era, however, stewardship has been redefined as service. Switchboard offers an easy way to listen to your community, identify their needs, and serve them. Let’s discuss both ideas. 

What is Stewardship? 
Robert K. Greenleaf is the founder of the servant leadership movement. We ascribe to his definition of stewardship as he presented it in, “The Institution as a Servant.” 

"Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions—often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

Greenleaf warned that, “Unless the quality of large institutions can be raised, not much can be done to improve the total society.” The goal of institutions must therefore be to raise their capacity to care and to serve their members. Institutions cannot just care about that major donor or key prospect. To survive, institutions must care about everyone. 

We’re used to stewarding donors who offer us something--be it time, talent, or treasure the protocol is known: thank and acknowledge; provide public recognition; report back about the impact of their gift; offer access to leadership; celebrate the gift and provide ongoing opportunities to engage. This is how we stewards those in a position to give. But how do we steward those who first need help from the institution? 

The Qualities of a Servant Leader

Greenleaf outlined these ten qualities of a servant leader:

1. Listening. Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. 

2. Empathy. The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. 

3. Healing. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is part of being human, servant-leaders recognize that they also have an opportunity to “help make whole” those with whom they come in contact.

4. Awareness. General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness also aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position. 

5. Persuasion. Another characteristic of servant-leaders is a primary reliance on persuasion rather than positional authority in making decisions within an organization. The servant-leader seeks to convince others rather than coerce compliance. 

6. Conceptualization. Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.” The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities.

7. Foresight. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.

8. Stewardship. Peter Block has defined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.” Robert Greenleaf ‘s view of all institutions was one in which CEOs, staffs, and trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society. 

9. Commitment to the growth of people. Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As a result, the servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the institution.

10. Building community. The servant-leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant-leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution.  

How to Serve on Switchboard

At Switchboard, we’ve developed a simple recipe for stewardship. It’s called the Switchboard Golden Rule

  • A resource on every ask
  • A “thank you” on every offer

Imagine you are a student or alum who comes to your community in need of help. You reach out and ask for what you are looking for. What emotions might they feel? Anxious, stressed out, worried, pessimistic. By providing each person who asks with a resource you are stewarding them to success and moving them from point A to point B. You are stewarding them to success. So, what resources might you provide them? 

Perhaps you tag another member of the community to provide assistance such as a volunteer or another alumnus

  • Or tag a colleague in another office
  • Or direct them to an existing resource or website that might be buried online
  • Or point them to a recent event or panel on the topic they are asking about
  • Or offer to help them directly in person or over email

Offers are easier. We can treat them as we would any offer of time, talent, and treasure by simply thanking them. By thanking these people who offer they feel acknowledged, grateful, and stewarded.  

Further Reading

Servant Leadership: An Introduction to the Power of Leadership through Service

For Real Academic Disruption try Empathy,” Harrison Keeler, The Chronicle of Higher Education

What Robert Greenleaf Called on Us to Do,” Dr. Kent Smith

“Practicing Servant Leadership,” by Larry Spears, CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

Service Design,” Educause

How SMU Increased Its Alumni Volunteer Base by 500%,” Switchboard blog

How UMass Lowell and Emerson College Make Alumni Feel Like Family,” Switchboard blog