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March 28, 2005
Engaging volunteers meaningfully
Johnnie Ray is senior vice president for development and university relations
“The best mirror is an old friend.” —George Herbert
As extensive as our circuits into the larger world are on behalf of Emory, those of us who do alumni relations and development work ideally need the services of a small army to extend our reach. In this small army, the enlisted go by a single title that is decidedly unmartial—that of “friend.” Though lacking Emory business cards, our friends are no less a part of the University, and their actions in our service are no less decisive in terms of Emory’s positioning and overall reputation.
We need friends to understand the impact we have on society and to advocate for our causes in their own social and business circles. We need friends to open doors for us and, on occasion, influence important issues before the state and national legislatures. Friends help us partner with other sectors to mutual benefit and are of invaluable assistance in leveraging philanthropic investment. As my epigraph attests, the “best” friends also do not shy away from giving us critical input about ourselves, and in this regard Emory has been fortunate over the years. Simply put, we need friends to help Emory get better, to help make those circuits wider.
Gaining friends and volunteers in today’s world, however, is a much different proposition than even a decade ago. For many years, the Depression and World War II generations carried American higher education on their backs, engaging in volunteerism and philanthropy with great passion and almost unconditional love. They came along at a time when access to college was much more limited. Realizing their great good fortune and unique place in history, these original higher education supporters are enormously loyal to the institutions that gave them their foothold in life.
As our upcoming Commencement speaker, Tom Brokaw, has chronicled so well, we are now losing the people from that era. Replacing them are generations who came of age when a much greater percentage of citizens had access to a university education. Although these younger generations—particularly alumni—may want us to succeed, they have many more choices for how to spend their volunteer time and discretionary philanthropic resources. They want to know why their involvement matters; they want to measure their impact on us—and, in turn, our impact on society.
As the generational dominoes fall, it is critical that we begin to identify who will constitute Emory’s next generation of volunteer leadership. We must offer a richer context for volunteers’ involvement so that we are among their leading choices in a long list of service opportunities.
That process has started with our current Board of Governors of the Association of Emory Alumni—the one volunteer organization that cuts across the whole of the institution and represents our most significant body of potential support. How, then, are we constructing this engagement?
First, we are exposing them in great depth to the real issues the University is facing: the need to build a stronger public image; to increase our capacity in certain key domains; to leverage the great synergies that can be developed at the boundaries of the traditional academic disciplines; to cement an even stronger partnership with the Carter Center; and much more. We have sparked their interest by asking them to weigh the very questions we are weighing, such as the notion of “university vs. multiversity,” the concept of “contributing excellence vs. competitive excellence,” and the idea of being a “destination university.”
A board member sits on the Strategic Plan Steering Committee, giving our alumni a direct stake in the final product. In addition, Provost Earl Lewis has provided the entire board a comprehensive look at the strategic planning process, and they have reflected on the proposed signature themes, thus helping us to understand how the broader public may react.
As a result of exposing our volunteers to issues of substance—issues with which we ourselves wrestle—we draw more effectively on their experience and expertise; meanwhile, they in turn will be better advocates for our concerns. By engaging them on a higher plane, they will have a more satisfying personal experience and more equity in our future.
I welcome the comments of any of Emory’s field generals as to how we might best grow, and deploy, this army of gentle friends.