UAB Spotlight: Committed to Change

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.” 


Guest Writer: Transition to GivePulse – Tips for Success

JCU student at a service-learning placement

John Carroll University (JCU), a Catholic liberal arts institution outside of Cleveland,Ohio with some 3,500 students signed-on with GivePulse in the spring of 2017 with an anticipated launch in fall 2017. They were moving from a custom-coded database that was difficult to navigate, hard to work with, and was quickly becoming obsolete for their expanding needs and level of student engagement. In planning for a successful migration to the GivePulse platform, they developed an integrated implementation plan and worked closely with a variety of key stakeholders at the University to make sure they would be ready to go live for fall 2017. Now after a successful launch and a full academic year of use by students, faculty, and staff, the director of the Center for Service and Social Action at JCU, Katherine Feely, SND, shares her five tips for success and other helpful hints when thinking about your own transition to GivePulse.

  1. Work closely with your IT department – Review the technical dimensions of the product, including data security, firewalls, scripts needed to run, and the data interface with your student information system. Involve your IT team every step of the way. Enlist their support to migrate the data from your previous platform.
  2. Test the Data – Before doing anything test the integrity of your existing data to make sure you have everything you need.  Identify the essential fields that will be migrated over and match them to the appropriate fields in GivePulse. JCU migrated test data first, comparing that data to their “reliable and verified” data and checked for errors. JCU found key data elements that needed to be re-uploaded, fields that didn’t match up, and scripts that had to be adjusted. Once satisfied, we proceeded full-force with the data migration.
  3. Training, Training, Training! Train every staff member. JCU trained all summer before going live (even those who didn’t necessarily need to know the new platform). Work together as a team so everyone understands the platform. Create a training plan with step-by-step instructions to make sure key stakeholders understand the new platform before going live. Create “test” events, registrations, activities, partners, courses, etc. so you can understand how to navigate each one. Staff members should navigate the site as a student user in order to understand navigation from their perspective.
  4. Utilize the GivePulse Team – Periodic Zoom calls to GivePulse are a great way to go over various features if you can’t understand a feature on our own. JCU staff would explore different features, gather questions in summarized format, and email them in advance to the GivePulse team, then we would work through the questions during our calls.  By working together in the actual platform and gaining a greater understanding of the architecture and capabilities of GivePulse, we could gain the confidence we needed to launch and avoid the pitfalls of ignorance.
  5. Monitor the Roll Out – Have all eyes on roll-out when going live and catch things early!  At JCU we had 600 to 700 students registering for academic service-learning placements during the course of four days. We knew that if we were going to fail, we were going to fail big. We had a few early registration roll outs with targeted courses to make sure all would work as hoped. During these first few days, we were in close touch with GivePulse to troubleshoot and their team was amazing! Their responsiveness and assistance made a huge difference – that was part of the success.
Our Challenges
  • Moving away from a complicated custom-coded database, we had to figure out what we really needed to keep, and what we didn’t.
  • We really had to learn a whole different language and a way of engaging with the registration process. It could be challenging at times, but it was totally worth it.
  • Personnel changes! We lost our database staff member just before the migration started, making it a huge challenge, but it forced me as director to really get in the weeds and learn about GivePulse from the inside out.
Getting Buy-In from Stakeholders
  • Schedule meetings with your various stakeholders to showcase what GivePulse can do. We provided presentations to various departments and decision-makers, showing them how they would benefit from using the platform, and how it could ease their workload.
  • Meet with your director of IT and some team members.  We conferenced with the GivePulse team so we could clear up as many technical questions about data integration, security, etc.  With their support, everything went very smoothly.
  • After completing the first full academic year with GivePulse, we met with our IT director and the team to thank them for their support, and to show them what a difference GivePulse made in our work, data analytics, and in providing an excellent student experience. They appreciated seeing how their hard work and input mattered in advancing the mission of the University.
What Would I Do Differently
  • Not very much. We had a full year of lead time, and we needed it.  Migrate early over the summer – not in August.

GivePulse is a great platform.  It was an excellent choice and has such robust capacity that we are so glad we made the switch. We would never think about going back to the risk and headache of a custom-coded database when we have such a great platform and a team of technical and higher education civic engagement experts partnering with us at GivePulse.



Katherine Feely, SND
Director
Center for Service & Social Action
John Carroll University