Dominican University of California Spotlight: Sustained Relationships

This post is part of our Spotlight series, where we spotlight our incredible partners. We are so thrilled that GivePulse has been able to work with these nonprofits, institutions, and corporations!

Sustainable Relationships

Dominican University of California, located in San Rafael, is a small school (just over 1300 undergraduate students) with a big mission: Dominican “educates and prepares students to be ethical leaders and socially responsible global citizens who incorporate the Dominican values of study, reflection, community, and service into their lives.” The university’s dedication to this mission is affirmed by its receipt of the Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching “in recognition of the University’s exemplary institutional focus on community engagement.” 

Indeed, Dominican University of California is deeply focused on community engagement, as evidenced by the institution’s approach to service-learning. Dominican defines service-learning as “an educational approach that integrates meaningful community engagement with academic curriculum emphasizing critical reflection and analysis.” Dominican has built a service-learning program that create sustainable, reciprocal partnerships. These “deep, long lasting partnerships in the community” have emerged from a focus on quality over quantity — a focus that Dominican purposefully maintains. 


Dominican University volunteers encourage creativity in their work with students


These “deep, long lasting partnerships in the community” have emerged from a focus on quality over quantity — a focus that Dominican purposefully maintains. 

“Even if our students are only there for fifteen, sixteen weeks a semester, we have more students coming the next semester,” says Julia van der Ryn, Executive Director at the Center for Community Engagement. “A lot of times we do retain students, but this way it’s not about getting students to stay at a partner — it’s about us being able to sustain the partnership by constantly sending students to work with the partners every semester.” 

Reflection and Retention

While Dominican has created a system in which the partnership lasts beyond individual involvement, retention of students is certainly important, and van der Ryn says that use of GivePulse correlates to student retention at a given community partner. Use of GivePulse suggests “something very indicative about the organization — their effectiveness and the culture they’re interested in creating.” The partner sites at which “students have really the most sense of belonging and really are excited to be there, making strong connections” are “the same partners that really value reading the GivePulse reflections of our students.” Indeed, some partners even print out the reflections; reflections are a key tenet of community partners’ learning about how community members are engaging. 


Community partners with whom “students have really the most sense of belonging… are the same partners that really value reading the GivePulse reflections of our students.”

Dominican University of California thinks that this interest in student reflections might point to “the particular people who are supervising our students, and their approach, and the culture they want to create at their site.” The sites with cultures that support sustained student involvement are the same ones “who tell us how interesting it is to get the insights of the students.” The benefits are mutual; these same partners say that they “take ideas back from the students” to their organization and leadership. 

Dominican plans to “form a group of our community partners” to talk more about the culture they can create: “We know it creates more sustainability in terms of our students wanting to return to those partners, which translates to more success in helping the people they’re serving in their community.” GivePulse, according to van der Ryn, has “helped strengthen these sustained relationships — they’re more relationships than just partnerships.” 

Becoming Part of the Community

The degree to which community partners were using GivePulse came as something of a surprise to Dominican. Dominican “had no idea the extent to which they were accessing or reading” reflections. 

This extensive use of GivePulse shows how much it has helped community partners. Community partners see the value of this system. It “inspires them to hear from students,” particularly given that they “welcome feedback to improve their programs.” Additionally, nonprofits are able to use the data gathered from GivePulse for grant applications, and are able to build program capacity through the influx of Dominican University of California students. 

This is crucial given the many ways that partners engage with the community. Some partners, like Canal Alliance, have a variety of aspects, including “adult ESL, middle school and after school programming, legal services, a food pantry — all these multiple, wrap around services.” 


Community partners often engage with a variety of causes

With GivePulse, the university becomes “part of the community” working toward these varied goals. Before using GivePulse, an Excel spreadsheet that needed regular manual updates was used to maintain an accurate record of student involvement. Now, Dominican can keep track of student engagement “in real time,” and can know exactly where students are engaging.

With GivePulse, Dominican can keep track of student engagement “in real time,” and can know exactly where students are engaging.

Dominican can also keep track of any issues or “things that need to be ironed out,” both by accessing student reflections and by accessing logistical information about which students have registered for courses and site placements. This provides an “overview of where the [service-learning] class is at any time.” In this way, GivePulse provides a snapshot of engagement.

Beyond Mandatory

Faculty members appreciate this snapshot in their service-learning classes, describing GivePulse as a “go-to” for making sure that their classes are “on track.” Faculty incorporate GivePulse in different ways — some ask only that students record their hours, while others use the platform as a repository for prompts, essays, and other qualitative forms of information. 

In all of these cases, student usage is mandatory; faculty include GivePulse usage in evaluating students, incorporating grades for both hours and for impact reflections. 


Faculty members describe GivePulse as a “go-to” for making sure their class is “on track.”

Student participation sometimes starts at this mandatory level and grows into individually motivated use of the platform. One student, Michael Gomez, began using GivePulse to record his hours for a service learning course. From this course, he was hired for a service-learning job, and ultimately took over the position that trains students for service-learning at Canal Alliance. 


Dominican University students paint with community members


Another student, Karla Hernandez, also works with Canal Alliance. She took a service-learning class and “just became so impassioned” that she declared the Community Action & Social Change Minor and became an SL student leader in the organization. Her belief in the importance of using GivePulse’s capabilities is palpable: when in charge of verifying student hours, Hernandez refused to verify reflections if students did not write enough or were “vague and slapdash,” writing to tell them that they “need[ed] to write more.”

Service Learning Opportunity

These stories do not just point to students become increasingly adept at GivePulse — they also reveal the importance of service-learning as gateways to opportunities in community engagement organizations. Dominican is aware of the importance of community engagement not just to the community, but also to the students involved. 

On their website, Dominican cites studies that show that “Service-learning and student-faculty research can boost your learning and other gains like personal and social development by 81%,” and that “69% of employers are more likely to hire someone who’s done a community-based project.” The university offers mentorship through integrative coaches and academic advisors to direct students toward community engagement opportunities aligned with their personal and professional goals. 

GivePulse helps the university to leverage students into positions that provide increased access to work in areas in which they are interested. By seeing which students “really seem engaged” on GivePulse, the university can “tap” these students for future roles in student leadership, and can encourage them to consider majors and minors that call upon their work in the community. In this way, GivePulse offers growth opportunities for students invested in community engagement.


GivePulse offers growth opportunities for students invested in community engagement.


Students can also use hours and reflections recorded on GivePulse to propel them into new roles and opportunities. The records maintained on GivePulse help students to access “their history and use for future references, jobs, etc.” 

Unimaginable

The data GivePulse maintains must be organized in such a way that users can easily find and use their records. Dominican feels that having a detailed implementation plan is the most critical factor for universities intending to use GivePulse. Even though they describe themselves as a small university, there are many questions to answer; according to Jenny Bray, Service-Learning Program Coordinator, key questions include: “Who owns what information and who wants to share hours? Who wants to play?” Understanding the interests of different parties using the platform can help to set GivePulse up in a way that offers the most benefit to all.  

This involves, crucially, “thinking ahead of time”: figuring out where information should fall in regards to partnerships and departments, which individual contacts to set as admins for nonprofits and how best to make sure that the information all comes back to the university at the source. There are “tons of layers,” Bray says, which “makes GivePulse great.” Her advice “is really think out first how you want to use it and then kind of go from there.”


“I can’t imagine going back to life before GivePulse.” 

Elements that they suggest planning before beginning the implementation include deciding which departments will use GivePulse, determining how to make sure partners can be shared between different subgroups, and establishing single sign on to streamline the login process. 

They also stress the importance of having someone on the staff who knows GivePulse well and can train others. Creating trainings and Powerpoints that help users understand exactly what workflows to use makes the process “easier and easier.”


“In terms of the logistics and being able to have that bird’s eye view of what’s going on at the beginning of the semester — that is priceless.”

With these steps in place, gathering information becomes as easy as the push of a button. As van der Ryn points out, “The student reflections, all of that — that’s all great, that’s all the icing, but in terms of the logistics and being able to have that bird’s eye view of what’s going on at the beginning of the semester — that is priceless.” Bray agrees, adding that GivePulse offers vast benefits in terms of “the history” and being able to see who was where and for how long. “For the students, faculty, and administrators,” she says, “it is amazing to be able to so quickly access that data.” 

Perhaps it is for all of these reasons van der Ryn says of the platform, “I cannot imagine going back to life before GivePulse.”

UAB Spotlight: Committed to Change

This post is part of our Spotlight series, where we spotlight our incredible partners. We are so thrilled that GivePulse has been able to work with these nonprofits, institutions, and corporations!

Bringing community to the university


UAB volunteers teach elementary school students about physiology 

The vision statement of the University of Alabama at Birmingham affirms the university’s dedication to “inspiring and empowering the creation of knowledge that changes the world.” This is perhaps natural given UAB’s location in a city historically invested in community change. Emily Wykle, project director in the Office of the President at UAB, emphasizes the importance of Birmingham’s “really deep commitment” to community engagement. The city itself offers “very fertile ground” for civic work, she says, adding, “You don’t have to be browbeating people to get involved. You have the appetite.” 

This community-wide energy for change is evident in UAB’s broadly reaching implementation of GivePulse. UAB established their GivePulse domain (dubbed “BlazerPulse”) in the fall of 2018. According to Wykle, GivePulse has been “kind of the overlay” for the city’s work. “There’s already exciting things happening,” she notes. With GivePulse, the university can “give others a way in.” 



“There’s already exciting things happening,” Wykle says. GivePulse can “give others a way in.”

Before using GivePulse, connections between the university and the work happening in the community were sometimes, in Wykle’s words, “kind of random.” Faculty members looking for organizations with which to engage often experienced difficulty in locating the greatest community need, while community partners did not always know how to access the university’s resources. In addition, to track data, UAB used “a kind of homegrown survey that I don’t think I would be speaking out of turn to say was a big disaster. There was no way to analyze it, not a great response rate.” 


The “cluster” view of various UAB activities happening in Birmingham

GivePulse provides resources that analyze both qualitative and quantitative information. One example that Wykle sees as particularly beneficial is the engagement heat map, which she says “gets people so excited, and I think that’s really driven a lot of exciting partnerships.” She recalls working with Hands on Birmingham, a United Way sponsored organization, for their Back to School Beautification Day. The UAB community was invited alongside the broader Birmingham community to work with people in the neighborhoods where each of the city’s schools were housed. Wykle considers this a key facet of being part of the various communities in Birmingham: “This has been a way for us to work alongside them. A more opportune way.” 



“[GivePulse] gets people so excited, and I think that’s really driven a lot of exciting partnerships.”

Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

Through GivePulse, the question of how to create a mutually beneficial partnership is answered by design. Community partners can see the forms of engagement supported by UAB and can open aligned opportunities; in turn, students, faculty, and staff at UAB are able to find and engage with the opportunities that most need their help. 


UAB students gain hands-on knowledge of farming in Birmingham 


In this way, UAB has found in GivePulse “essentially a civic giving form” through which community partners and nonprofits can consider how to connect their needs to the strategic goals of the university. UAB, meanwhile, can see both “the strategic connection” and “whether that organization is invested in what [UAB is] doing.” This helps UAB “to make better decisions around who [they] support, and also democratizes the process.” Any nonprofits can sign up on GivePulse; no longer reliant on hearing about engagement opportunities through connections and networking, nonprofits now have a “front door” to the resources of the university. 


A bubble chart showing UAB engagement by specific causes


GivePulse helps UAB “to make better decisions around who [they] support, and also democratizes the process.”


In addition to accessing information about the possibilities available, UAB can now also see the work with which staff and students have already been engaging. Wykle recalls using the system to determine who had logged the most hours on BlazerPulse and finding a woman who, unbeknownst to Wykle, had been working night shifts at a crisis center. This user logged more than 700 hours with the center. Through GivePulse, this record was suddenly easily accessible, allowing UAB to “highlight her and recognize her for her work.” Furthermore, this knowledge allowed UAB to strengthen connections with the crisis center, helping more volunteers to engage in this work. 

Community Energy

UAB brought community partners onto GivePulse “really early, like before we really knew what we were doing,” recalls Wykle, adding, “I can’t believe we did that!” UAB organized a meeting with about fifty nonprofits in Birmingham that they had “deep relationships with, deep history” — nonprofits that the university knew “would go out on a limb” for them. Community partners soon began to expand their presence on GivePulse. Now, they are not just “using it for UAB,” Wykle says. “They’re really using it to get volunteers to sign up from other parts of Birmingham.” 


Nonprofits are really using GivePulse “to get volunteers to sign up from other parts of Birmingham.”

UAB maintains the community energy that first brought the partners to GivePulse by meeting with them twice a year, which, particularly in the early days of using GivePulse, offered an opportunity to hear what was — and was not — working. Wykle recalls learning that the Office of Conduct, when assigning students community service, did not count GivePulse as a valid way to track service hours, something that she would not have known had community partners not brought this to her attention. This opened an opportunity to have a conversation with the Office of Conduct, resulting in the confirmation of GivePulse as the primary method of tracking service hours across the campus.

Campus-Wide Implementation

Since implementing GivePulse in fall of 2018, UAB has created over 200 subgroups and recorded over 30,000 hours of community activity. While these numbers might seem overwhelming to build into any platform, UAB maintains an organizational system that calls upon feedback from across the institution. Wykle emphasizes the importance of building a system of liaisons across departments, colleges, and organizations on campus, all of whom can offer feedback throughout the implementation process. At the start, “there were some hiccups,” but with the help of a diverse group of faculty members, UAB was “able to say, ‘Here’s where faculty are getting stuck, here’s what’s sticky.’” 

Wykle also emphasizes the importance of support at the top tier of the institution; because she works in the president’s office, the engagement “has really has come from the top down.” This is critical: “Having it come from the top down gives it a sense of [being] something we are really committed to and interested in.” Perhaps more importantly, every department and college at the school is focused on community engagement. “Each of the schools has a community engagement part of their strategic plan,” she says, and adds, “We can meet them where they’re at… [it’s] not just a central helping us kind of thing, but can help at a school and department level.” While each department and college may have had different practices of engagement prior to the implementation of GivePulse, centralizing the data and the tracking system allows for these different colleges to share knowledge, opening the university to stronger community engagement in every field. 

It helped that faculty members immediately recognized the need for this platform from their own experiences with community engagement. As Wykle notes, “They were going to be with us from the outset. This was something that was important to them.” This was true both of faculty members whose time was spent primarily in the classroom and of faculty whose focus was primarily on research. The latter group is important to UAB: “We are a research university,” Wykle says, adding that it is important to the university to figure out how GivePulse can “help you leverage the research and work you’re already doing and use it to translate… [to] actual value in people’s lives.” The main question UAB still hopes to answer, she adds, is, “How are we taking the teaching, research, all of the knowledge being generated here, and [translating] it to making people’s lives better in Birmingham?” Accentuating this focus for the research side of the university supports UAB’s vision of changing the world through acquisition and creation of knowledge. 


It is important to the university to figure out how GivePulse can “help you leverage the research and work you’re already doing and use it to translate… [to] actual value in people’s lives.”


While faculty interest and recognition of the valuable ways GivePulse could be used were critical when establishing the platform, Wykle feels that equally crucial to successful implementation was positive student response. Students quickly adopted GivePulse, providing feedback and recording hours at a rate that surprised even the most enthusiastic faculty members. Because of their consistent use of GivePulse, students create data containing detailed information that UAB can use to understand how and why they are interacting with the Birmingham community. 

When asked if she had any advice for other universities implementing GivePulse, Wykle says, “If we had waited until everything was flawless and then invited community partners in, that would have been a major misstep.” Instead of waiting until their implementation seemed perfect, UAB was “really honest about building the plan,” asking for feedback and input from community partners, students, faculty, and staff throughout the process. Ultimately, it comes down to seeking feedback from a variety of sources to ensure that everyone — community partners, students, faculty, staff — can engage in a way that changes the community for the better. As Wykle advises, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”