Three Trends in Global Community Engagement

I am privileged to work with a diverse array of alumni communities: institutions from different countries; public and private universities; independent schools; and even non-governmental organizations, public agencies, and foundations. This year, I have noticed several themes emerge across all of these types of organizations. I’ve shared my year-end thoughts about three of the most prominent themes – all related to volunteerism, engagement structures and strategy – that should be of interest to any kind of nonprofit organization, large or small.

1. Volunteers expect to see their impact.

Over the past several years, the motivation behind philanthropic donations has steadily shifted from supporting an organization to supporting a cause. This trend has now moved beyond donating money; we are also seeing it where people donate their time. I see this in my work with regional chapter presidents to members of national boards and every volunteer in between.

Committees, boards and councils have historically had a largely honorary or advisory role. But today volunteers expect that the time they are giving, and the work they are doing, is something the organization needs in order to accomplish its mission, as well as something that will have a tangible outcome for the institution.

For alumni communities in particular, this can go beyond volunteering their time with the institution. Alumni don’t only work to support the parent institution; they also support other fellow alumni. For example, graduates provide career support and access to professional networks for students and for fellow alumni. They can also recruit high-quality students, who raise the academic quality of the institution. Over time, this increases “degree equity,” the long-term value of the credentials of all alumni whom the institution has graduated in the past.

The relationship between the institution and its alumni is mutually supportive – a “two-way street.” Volunteer leaders represent the needs and desires of members at large, while promoting the institution’s overarching mission to other community members, through other community members, and to the outside community as well.

2. Nonprofit organizations are investing less in “permanent structures.”

There are generational differences in community engagement. For example, younger members’ expect to engage with organizations on their own terms – when, how, and as much (or as little) as they wish. This conflicts with the long tradition of formal, permanent structures as the primary portal for connecting with one’s shared community.

My colleague J T. Forbes, Chief Executive Officer of the Indiana University Alumni Association and GG+A consulting vice president, is articulate on this in the context of alumni communities. He notes, for example, how more fluid and informal alumni networks are replacing many traditional regional chapters. Many younger professionals see “joining” a club as an old-fashioned idea; they want to participate in communities, but on their own terms. The result is looser and more adaptable group formation. Small groups can convene on short notice and without official approval for every meeting. This activity is driven by grassroots interest and not by corporate mandate, financial resources, institutional policies, or professional staff. Many groups exist without the knowledge of the parent organization, using online tools and individuals’ interests to drive their activity.

This means the organization must shift its scarce staff time and financial support away from permanent structures and toward more responsive answers to audience needs and expectations. This is a challenge for institutions wedded to long-standing, bureaucratic arrangements; but for rising generations, those structures inhibit the creativity, flexibility, and responsiveness they need when working via social or professional networks.

The shift away from permanence is also visible in governance structures, such as boards and their committees. I often advise clients to let standing committees give way to task forces or temporary ad hoc working groups that form and disperse more easily and more frequently. There are still important roles for permanent committees: an executive committee for strategic decision-making; an awards committee for recognizing individuals’ service or achievements; and a nominating committee to recruit new board members. But for communications, career services, and events, it is more common than ever to have project-based, impermanent groups.

3. Programs are trading breadth of engagement in exchange for depth of engagement.

Traditionally, community-based organizations (including alumni associations) have tried to appeal to as many people as possible. The goal was broad participation, even if many participants were only minimally engaged. As times have changed – and due in part to the increasing importance of fundraising for many organizations – the focus has shifted. Now, there is greater acknowledgment and acceptance of reaching fewer, but more selected people, and thereby engaging more deeply with each person we reach.

In this tradeoff, organizational staff must decide at every stage whether to continue trying to reach as many people as possible, or to reach a smaller fraction of stakeholders, more deeply. Think of it in terms of “opportunity cost:” every minute or dollar spent reaching one additional person could instead be spent making an existing supporter even more committed. Over time an organization must do both, but also needs to strike a balance and maintain it through a combination of strategic planning and outcome measurement.

Of course, these are not the only issues facing our organizations today, but they are ones that bear careful consideration and periodic reassessment. Are they relevant for you? What additional trends or shifts will you be watching in 2017? Leave a comment.

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