9 Tips for Virtual Engagement Success: Learnings from our education and nonprofit partners

In this blog, our first of the new year, we provide a foundation for effective and impactful community engagement in a virtual environment. Whether you are a program coordinator for a nonprofit, a faculty member for service-learning courses, or a director in community engagement or philanthropy, we hope you will be able to use these tips as you plan programming for 2021! 

For Devon, a guest speaker representing the volunteer perspective in our recent virtual engagement webinar, the COVID-19 crisis coincided with changes in her personal life. She started as a first year medical student while facing several of the most intense challenges COVID-19 can offer: family members became sick, and her family was unable to grieve after the untimely passing of her grandmother from the virus. 

Although these challenges made it more difficult, Devon knew she wanted to remain fully engaged in her community. “My desire to volunteer is still very much there,” she said, adding that because of her own experience with COVID-19, finding virtual opportunities is of the utmost importance.

This story is indicative of broader challenges facing communities: in our recent partner survey, 94% reported that participants had shared COVID-specific struggles with their organization. Communities are being impacted by this public health crisis, with consequences for productivity, sense of safety, mental health, and more. Perhaps due to these factors, 75% of survey respondents reported that participants were much less engaged than they had been before COVID. Yet participants like Devon want to engage, and to make an impact, despite these setbacks.  

On December 10, GivePulse brought together a few of our community partners to form a panel, discussing shared virtual engagement challenges and successes during COVID-19. In this post, we have gathered our nine tips for virtual engagement success to help you approach these challenges with an empathetic mindset while continuing impactful work for your organization or community.

1. Pivot and Rebuild

The first hurdle to virtual engagement is to develop engaging opportunities for your organization or partners. Many of these opportunities may meet a new need stemming from staff or organizational changes, such as fundraising, grant writing, and social media. Others incorporate interactive elements into virtual activities; for example, Devon, now volunteering with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, set up a crafting session with her little sister. She delivered supplies for a project to her little sister’s home, and the two were able to work on the project “together” over Zoom. Our full community safety guide includes detailed information about how to develop virtual and remote opportunities that, like Devon’s project, are interactive and flexible.

2. Learn From and Activate Your Network  

As we all work to pivot our engagement efforts in a virtual world, lean on your existing network to learn what others have done to maintain community involvement. Lindsey Payne, the Volunteer Coordinator at San Antonio’s The Doseum, recalls reaching out widely in March and April: “We were talking to everybody — what’s working best for you? What’s not working for you?” Your network might include similar nonprofits, peer institutions, local businesses, or even community members such as volunteers, students, or employees. Open virtual feedback sessions or surveys can facilitate communication for new ideas and activities. In addition, attend webinars and virtual conferences, or even form your own online community with peer organizations and institutions. Check in regularly to see what has worked for others, and come together to develop guides that can be shared with others. If you are partnering with organizations in your community, particularly as an institution of higher education, use this network to come up with flexible opportunities, bearing in mind that capacities may have changed due to COVID-19. As we all learn how to work in the new normal, having a strong community to learn alongside is invaluable. 

3. Provide Consistent, Relevant, Everyday Opportunities

Realizing that consistent, everyday opportunities were more appealing to his students, Dustin Perry, a teacher and service coordinator at Christian Brothers High School, Memphis,  “pivoted”  to opportunities such as making and delivering packed lunches, creating homeless care packages that students can keep in their cars to hand out, and other similar activities. To accompany these everyday opportunities, learning focuses on the social issues behind these small actions in order to connect the dots between small actions and larger social issues, informing a lifelong understanding of how to stay involved. Your organization, business, or school can set up similar consistent, everyday opportunities, offering increased trainings on the social justice issue behind your mission and finding ways to make engagement a lifelong element even beyond your programs. 

4. Compassionate Communication 

All participants will benefit from clear and compassionate communication. GivePulse has found that regular communication, check ins, and reminders right before events increases engagement and participation. When possible, augment these reminders with personal conversations. Individual check-ins can help you get a sense of the challenges facing each volunteer or student and adjust as necessary, as well as making the individual feel more connected to your cause and mission. Open space for your participants to be honest about their concerns, and address them when possible. If you are not hearing back, make sure to follow up — inboxes are more full than ever, and an extra check-in can make all the difference, so don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call!

5. Short and Sweet

We’re in a new reality where we often rely on Zoom calls and virtual presentations to share information. You may have found yourself wondering, “What’s the best length for my presentation? How can I keep everyone interested and make sure that they remember what I said?” Luckily, the team at TED studied this exact question. Backed up by cognitive neuroscience, TED Talks are required to be under 18 minutes long. With this in mind, figure out how you can make sure that any presented portions of your engagement opportunities are under 18 minutes. Once you hit the 18 minute mark, think about  how you can change up the content. For example, if you’re running an hour-long training or class, break it up into multiple 15-minute sessions, using breakout rooms for small group discussions in between. These same rules can apply to your opportunities for virtual or remote engagement: when possible, offer engagement that can be done in short chunks at any given time, and make very clear the availability for engagement (for example, is it weekends only? Afternoons? Mornings?). The clearer you are, the more likely you are to reach those who are willing and able to engage at those times.

6. Make Things Fun! 

Many of us are spending more time in front of screens than we’re used to. Make your presentations and opportunities stand out by adding fun, new content. Including short videos, like TikToks, can create a more visually appealing and engaging presentation, helping participants better retain knowledge and keep their energy up. Music can set the tone and catch the attention of those who may be drifting off. Know and work with your audience — if you are engaging older populations, you may need to offer more assistance with using technology in advance of the meeting to ensure participation; if you’re working with younger populations, you are more likely to need to focus on making your presentation fun using clips and interactive elements. 

7. Mix Things Up with Interactive Activities, Polls, and More 

During any presentation or activity, maintaining participant attention is key. Interactive activities, such as Devon’s virtual crafting session with her Little Sister, are one example of how to maintain engagement. Other opportunities for engagement include using virtual features like polls and breakout rooms to encourage communication between participants. Allow participants to meet each other by setting up breakout rooms in pairs or fours, and then come back together for large-group discussion after the breakout room portion. Encourage participants to continue communication and engagement beyond your organizations organized activities by creating Facebook groups or Slack channels. And if needed, provide restroom breaks or brief breaks to stretch, meditate or do breathing exercises.  

8. Establish Groups for Clear Accountability

To track progress, evaluate outcomes, and ensure engagement, establish consistent groups of students, volunteers, and employees who can keep one another enthusiastic and accountable. In addition, use the project-based event feature to establish clear deadlines and milestones, encouraging participants to be accountable to one another and to particular deadlines throughout the semester. This can also be an easy way to ensure some sort of evaluation metrics for outcomes. For example, students may be required to complete both a self evaluation and an evaluation of each group member at the end of the semester to provide feedback on the level of engagement. Accountability is crucial to effective and impactful virtual engagement! 

9. Recognize New Possibilities 

Above all, recognize and welcome the new possibilities introduced over the past year. Payne says that the most important suggestion she has is for organizations to “set goals and recognize — things are possible. Have expectations for yourself and your programs, but don’t make them unimaginable where you’re never going to reach those goals. We are all in this together.” And remember: in order to take care of your community, you need to take care of yourself. Lean on support systems, turn off notifications during off-hours, and decrease screen time when possible. Find opportunities to be active and don’t forget the importance of your mental and physical health. We’re all in this together!

This has been an overview of our December 10, 2020 webinar “Increasing Engagement During a Pandemic: Overcoming Virtual and In-Person Challenges.” For the full recording, see here

Service-Learning Quality Assessment Tool (SLQAT)

GivePulse is honored to be supporting the team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia developing a standardised assessment tool designed to provide a quantitative measure of quality for credit-bearing service-learning courses. The team has been hard at work for the past five years, as part of a U.S. Department of Education-funded national project, focused on investigating the impacts of community engagement on higher education student’s educational success. 

The Service-Learning Quality Assessment Tool (SLQAT) incorporates a set of 28 service-learning practices that research studies have found essential for promoting positive student outcomes.  The tool takes into account these elements to establish a composite numerical score that indicates the “quality” of service-learning courses.

The research team has shared preliminary versions of this measurement tool with scholars and practitioners at conferences and workshops across the globe for input and feedback.  They are now inviting you to join in the second phase of the research focused on assessing the reliability and validity of the tool.  They are specifically looking for service-learning scholars, practitioners, and supporters to assign relative weights to each of the instrument’s 28 elements by completing a survey in which you will assign each element a score, based on what you believe its level of influence is on student learning outcomes. The survey will take about 20 minutes to complete.

Complete the SLQAT Instrument Weights Survey here: https://slqat.givepulse.com/survey/take/SoQa8GnFW8M1O3YKkoHZ

United We Stand (6ft+ Apart): Best Practices for a Safe Reopening

As of May 20, all fifty states have begun the process of reopening. Your institution, organization, or office might be considering what this means for the upcoming months. While some will opt to continue working, learning, and engaging remotely, others will decide to return to in-person activity in some capacity. For those who choose to reopen common spaces or return to some form of in-person engagement, it is crucial to implement thorough safety measures. 

Our COVID-19 taskforce is dedicated to supporting safe reopenings for our partner organizations, institutions, and corporations. In this guide, we will delve deeply into what the Phase 1 and 2 reopening advice might mean for you, including:

  1. How to prepare for a safe reopening 
  2. Day-to-day steps to maintain a safe work environment
  3. Specific risk mitigation strategies

We also offer suggestions for volunteer opportunities that might be safely offered as organizations start to reopen; if you feel ready to start planning these opportunities, you can skip past the preparation guide to read these ideas. 

We hope that this guide will help you to implement and adhere to crucial safety practices, particularly in contexts in which you might engage with your community and vulnerable populations. 

Note: All of the information contained within this article is based on the CDC’s recommendations and is not intended as business advice. As always, please follow state and local regulations, and remember that reopening plans are not mandatory: your organization decides for itself when and how it feels ready to reopen. 

Preparing to Reopen  

If you are considering reopening, you must consider whether you are equipped to do so safely. From gathering supplies to cleaning common spaces, you will need to ensure that every possible precaution has been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Use donation drives to gather supplies

In order to effectively prepare, you will need to make sure that you have the materials you need to protect against the spread of COVID-19. This includes sufficient hand sanitizer and soap for everyone in the workspace to use multiple times throughout their days, sanitizing wipes to wipe down all shared spaces both before and after use, and in some cases PPE for all who will be in the space. If you are not sure whether your organization will be able to personally procure sufficient materials, you can organize a donation drive and rally your community to help. If you are a business with the capacity to support your community partners, reach out to them to help fill their gaps! 

Check for potential allergens 

Allergens may mimic several symptoms of COVID-19, which can lead those suffering from allergies to ignore concerning symptoms, or can lead to widespread fear within your environment. Symptoms of allergies such as sneezing or coughing can also lead to the spread of COVID-19, as droplets may spread even from those who do not yet know that they are infected. In order to alleviate the spread of coronavirus, check all buildings and workspaces for potential allergens such as mold or dust. In residential universities, for example, all dormitories must be thoroughly cleaned and inspected in advance of allowing any students to return. 

Set up physical barriers and diversify office time shifts to avoid person-to-person contact 

In situations where you may need face-to-face communication, such as reception desks, seminar classrooms, or check-in tables, set up physical barriers wherever possible. A plastic screen, partnered with masks for those on either side, can limit the potential for spread of coronavirus. Wherever possible, close common areas (such as shared kitchens) to prevent spread from their use. In general, make and implement a clear plan for limiting in-person presence. In the case that some or most folks want to be at the office, continue to provide flexibility to work remotely, and identify diverse time shifts to decrease traffic and office concentration. 

Day-to-Day Realities

In the below infographics, our Best Ever Volunteer, Bev, details what day-to-day life might look like during Phases 1 and 2 of reopening. From sanitizing frequently to offering virtual and remote opportunities, Phase 1 allows you to begin opening to small numbers of people; Phase 2 offers additional safety guidelines for larger gatherings. Again, it is crucial that you follow any local or state regulations as well as proceeding with an abundance of caution. We do not recommend that you allow for gatherings of more than 10 individuals if you can avoid doing so, and we encourage you to take every opportunity to decrease your density of individuals in any space. 

Phase 1

Phase 2

Risk Mitigation

As Bev shows us in the infographics above, preventing the spread of COVID-19 may involve extensive risk mitigation measures. Such measures include the following: 

HIPAA-compliant symptom monitoring

HIPAA protects patients’ privacy and personal information. Symptom monitoring, such as temperature checks, must be compliant with HIPAA while simultaneously preventing unnecessary risks for uncomfortable or inappropriate situations in the office or workspace. The most effective way to ensure that privacy, HIPAA, and personal comfort are not violated is to request that anyone considering coming to a shared space self-monitor symptoms, particularly temperature. You might even consider providing thermometers to anyone who will be coming in on a regular basis. Check with local health officials to determine whether your system for symptom monitoring is HIPAA compliant, and make sure to bear in mind ways to mitigate risk of uncomfortable or inappropriate interactions if you make the decision to monitor temperature in person. 

Contact tracing 

Contact tracing is becoming an increasingly prevalent method for rapidly diagnosing and treating new cases of COVID-19. This method identifies all of the contacts with which a newly infected patient has interacted over the past few weeks. These contacts are then warned that they may be ill, asked to isolate, and, if need be, tested for COVID. We will be posting a more detailed guide to contact tracing, including how your volunteer base might be able to help with this method, in the upcoming weeks. 

Isolation of cases

For cases in which reopening means also opening communal living spaces, you may need to isolate cases should they arise. Universities, for example, may find that residence halls quickly spread COVID-19. If a student or resident is suspected to have or is diagnosed with COVID-19, there must be measures in place to immediately isolate this case, including an available living space that minimizes exposure risk (for example, public restrooms, kitchens, etc.), options for food delivery in the case that they are unable to procure food for themselves, and how or when the individual will be moved to an alternative location. 

Liability waivers

Your liability waivers will need to be updated to reflect the new risks that will be present for those who are entering shared spaces. In your updated waivers, you should make clear what the new risks are, describe any safety precautions that the individual is responsible for (such as providing their own protective equipment, staying home in the case of illness, etc.), and detail the mutual choices that must be made in order to prevent spread in either direction. 

COVID-19 task force 

Especially if you are unable to avoid larger groups (for example, more than ten people), having a dedicated medical response team or COVID-19 task force ready to respond to medical emergencies is key. This might be a group of individuals who each know a specific role to play in the case that it becomes clear that an individual is ill (for example, where cleaning supplies are, how to clean, etc.), or, in the case of an event, it might be made up of medical professionals. In either case, being prepared for an individual case or an outbreak is crucial. 

Safe In-Person Volunteering

Over the past months, we have supported partner organizations as they implemented thoughtful and creative options for their volunteer base to engage with their community while sheltering in place to flatten the curve. Even as the country reopens, many volunteers will continue to prefer virtual options. We hope that our guide to virtual and remote volunteering can help you to plan effective and safe options, and that we can help you to evaluate your organization’s readiness to support virtual and remote opportunities. 

In addition to these virtual options, organizations may cautiously begin offering in-person options in order to best support the populations they work with. With the above plans and procedures in place, you can work within your organization or partner organizations to come up with some ideas for safe, in-person volunteering. We hope the below ideas will help to get you started: 

Creating virtual tours

While you may not yet be ready to reopen with large groups of people, even the most rudimentary reopening will give you the chance to let individual or smaller groups of volunteers create virtual tours. For universities, parks, museums, and science centers, this option can showcase attractions and features that would normally be open to many people at once. This can also be accomplished through asking that visitors and volunteers share their photos; our partners at the Austin Parks Foundation encourage visitors to share pictures through their collaboration with El Arroyo, placing signs with clever safety reminders across their parks and asking visitors to share the images.  

Clean-up crews

Similarly, individual or smaller groups of volunteers can enter spaces to help with important clean-up operations. For example, local schools, parks, and cities/municipalities such as our partners at the city of Austin can organize limited and targeted groups of volunteers to safely remove litter that may have accumulated while volunteers were unable to engage in person. 

Food preparation and delivery 

Food justice is increasingly critical at a time with so much financial instability. For organizations that help to combat food insecurity, such as our food bank partners and campus kitchens from institutions like UGA, the opportunity to reopen may also mean the opportunity to begin operating kitchens and delivery services. With the right safety precautions and options such as curbside pick-up or contactless delivery, the fight against food insecurity can continue with help from the in-person volunteers who make it possible. 

Animal care

For our partners at humane centers and animal shelters, reopening can offer the opportunity to bring volunteers back to interact with the animals who most need their care. Dog walking, cleaning pens/cages, and washing dogs are all activities that can be done in smaller numbers and that make a huge difference to the lives of the animals in these shelters. Of course, continuing to promote foster care as an option for those who are working from home will help just as much — our friends at Austin Pets Alive have seen incredible community support for their foster program! 

Delivering goods 

Our partners at Inspiring Minds had a great idea early into the pandemic: they delivered books and craft materials to the students they normally would be able to tutor and mentor in person. This type of volunteering can continue during reopenings! Volunteers can help organize and deliver packages with important materials to members of their community who can benefit from the help. Whether it’s children’s books and packages with the materials needed for interactive activities, food, or hard-to-find items such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there is no doubt that these deliveries will make a world of difference. 

Contingency Plans

Perhaps the most important part of planning to reopen is recognizing that your plans may change. Information is shifting regularly; experts have warned that states’ reopening may lead to new surges, which will alter regulations and guidance. Remember to include contingency plans as you look forward to reopening. If you will be moving individuals into shared residential areas, make plans for how to efficiently and safely move out large groups of people in a short amount of time; if you will be opening in-person engagement options, consider how these can be continued online or remotely. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best — and take every step you can to make sure the best-case scenario is truly safe. 

Did we miss anything? Let us know by contacting covid@givepulse.com. We want to make sure that we are supporting all of our partners through these challenging and transformative times. We know that our communities are strong, and have seen first-hand how all of our partners have rallied to make necessary changes while still finding ways to better their communities. We are humbled and proud to work with all of you, and look forward to helping in any way we can, now and moving forward. 

New Times Call for New Methods

As experts continue to caution against large group gatherings, it becomes increasingly apparent that common spaces in the office, campus, and community will be drastically altered. In the upcoming months, we will be working to support safe and impactful engagement for our entire community; while this post focuses on our higher ed partners, we believe that the business, city, and nonprofit community will also be able to benefit from the ideas and measures we highlight. 

While governments and health experts continue to develop protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, institutions may opt to reconsider their courses, expectations, and evaluation schematics. Recently, our partners at CSU, the nation’s largest four-year college system, announced their plans to move the majority of their Fall 2020 classes online. Other institutions are considering a variety of paths, from social-distanced seminars and virtual lectures, to going virtual after thanksgiving and adding a summer semester in 2021, to limiting which students are able to return to campus. In all of these cases, there are clear needs for on-campus public health awareness campaigns, testing, contract tracing, and isolation of cases.

Community engagement centers and service-learning courses may find themselves facing additional challenges as they strive to navigate a new form of engagement, potentially without the localized, in-person efforts that have characterized engagement previously. For those who decide that reopening is not a possibility, how does a way of learning so deeply rooted in a local community foster the same education and impact remotely? How, on the other hand, can service-learning courses that opt to continue in person engagement do so safely? 

In collaboration with our partners, we’ll be working closely with nonprofits to identify innovative ways to virtually meet the community’s new and existing needs, particularly for the 89% of respondents to our nonprofit survey who indicated that they are unsure of how to transition their hands-on opportunities. Service-learning courses can act as a vital resource to help support these efforts for their community partners. 

We are at a crossroads. We could throw up our hands and give up on the community for its high risks. We could also travel the other road, where our engagement becomes imperative to the community we serve. Higher education is needed now more than ever to be a beacon of light, not only for the research generated from the labs on campus, but also for the helping hands and heart that our students, faculty, staff and alumni provide to the most vulnerable at this time. 

There will be no return to “normal” or to the way things were. We are better and more innovative than that. We need to roll up our sleeves and dig in to new ways of being. The issues of poverty, health disparities, food insecurity and other inequities that were there before the pandemic have been amplified as a result of the outbreak, and will likely linger for some time to come unless we do something now.

While the circumstances are certainly challenging, there is much to be hopeful about in these trying times. This is an opportunity to consider how community engagement can become more accessible to students, including those who may not have the time or the ability to commit to traditional in-person forms of volunteering. It is an opportunity to increase the ways that your institution works with partners, strengthening partnerships and learning new forms of support and mutual growth. It is an opportunity to double down on the commitment serving your community, and to the populations who have already been most affected by COVID-19. 

These new times call for new methods of engagement. The GivePulse team is working closely with campuses, community organizations, state and local health departments, businesses, chambers of commerce, volunteer centers and many other collaborative partners across the globe to retool, rethink and re-emerge with a fresh focus and energy to tackle the challenges ahead.

In the course of communicating with our amazing campus partners, we have already heard so much to be hopeful about, as service-learning and community engagement centers have mobilized to respond not only to the needs of their vulnerable community members, but also to the public health crisis we currently face. 

Over the next few weeks, we will be working closely with our public health, virtual/remote engagement, and curriculum development task forces to create further resources that we hope will help institutions work through these challenging times. We will create best-practices guides, addressing, among other things: 

  • How to communicate, implement, and evaluate virtual service-learning and engagement
  • Safety measures to consider before allowing students to engage in-person with community partners
  • Important updates to liability waivers as risks associated with engagement change
  • Ways that student volunteers and engagement centers can support aspects of campus planning, logistics, execution, and assessment, including recruiting and training student volunteers as contact tracers 
  • Other opportunities for COVID-19 specific work, such as properly equipped and approved campus labs running COVID-19 tests, that provide an extraordinary learning opportunity for students and faculty mentors

We look forward to highlighting the unique efforts of our partners to help other institutions and communities learn from their successes and failures. As always, let us know how we can collaborate with you. 

George Washington University Spotlight: Engagement in the Capital

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! A special congratulations to George Washington University for receiving the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification this year. 

The GW Experience

George Washington University, located in the political epicenter of the United States, maintains a strong focus on the civic world. This civic interest characterizes the students who choose this campus as their home. “GW students come to DC because they are excited about being in the city and being in the nation’s capital,” says Jovanni Mahonez, Assistant Director of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service at GWU. “We are an academic community where civic engagement and public service are integral to the ‘GW experience.’”

GW provides students “with opportunities to learn through experience and to test the theories that they have learned in the classroom with the real world around them.” 

Opportunities to engage with a vibrant community enhance this experience. Mahonez believes that in order to “appropriately educate individuals,” GWU “must provide them with opportunities to learn through experience and to test the theories that they have learned in the classroom with the real world around them.” This creates benefits that extend beyond student success — academia as a whole benefits greatly from scholarship purposefully engaged with the non-academic world. Mahonez notes that research “designed to address and provide solutions to real world problems often benefits from reciprocal relationships with people outside academe: those in the community.” 

From Local to International

Washington, D.C., like many cities, offers a rich variety of opportunities for such scholarship and engagement. Here, “within just a couple of miles — and sometimes a few blocks —  we can work on the one hand with powerful, highly resourced institutions and organizations and on the other, collaborate with communities with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with attendant illiteracy, health disparities, social exclusion, and neighborhood violence.” 

“Within just a couple of miles… we can work on the one hand with powerful, highly resourced institutions and organizations and on the other, collaborate with communities with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.” 

Students are offered extensive opportunities to learn and engage in this community. Whether through internships on Capitol Hill and at the White House, work with national and international NGO headquarters, or service and research in schools, community organizations, foods banks, and shelters, students can find a wide variety of options through which to put their skills and interest to work in the community. 

A Robust Community Engagement System

Keeping track of this disparate and yet deeply interconnected work requires a robust community engagement  system, which GWU has found in GivePulse. Prior to GivePulse, GWU used myriad of other solutions for volunteer management, to help match people to service activities and to track these activities. Some departments and organizations used spreadsheets, Google forms, and Word documents to track this information. Mahonez says that “GivePulse is easier to use and many organizations on campus have switched to GivePulse instead of tracking by spreadsheet!” The benefits from this switch go beyond ease: “We get so much more data now… We have greater success in uptake even than we expected!” 

“We get so much more data now… We have greater success in uptake even than we expected!” 

This is largely because GivePulse provides a one-stop-shop for GW, community partners, and the broader DC community. In addition to sending students to GivePulse to engage with community partners, GW uses GivePulse for events and programs such as the annual Community Service and Engagement Fair. GWU uses the subdomain GWServes for their GivePulse page, a simple and clear way of describing their aims: “GWServes — it’s what we do. This describes the many forms of community and civic service: direct community service, social innovation, community engaged research, advocacy, and more. GW serves.” 

Generating Excitement

When asked about her advice for others hoping to set up GivePulse for their institution, Mahonez stressed the importance of working with all of the stakeholders at the very beginning — students, partners, and faculty. To help faculty learn about the program, GW pre-populated their courses and provided specialized PowerPoint presentations for them. They also worked with faculty in-person through small meetings and one-on-one conversations, as well as using screen share to guide faculty through the steps. 

It is important, Mahonez adds, to also share the impact of the new platform: “This August we are presenting to faculty on how great the data is they can get out if they are more cognizant about what they (and their students) put in. As onboarding is more streamlined we are hopeful the data collected this year will paint a bigger and more detailed picture of community engagement.” 

“We are hopeful the data collected this year will paint a bigger and more detailed picture of community engagement.” 

For students, GW hosted a kick-off event, complete with cupcakes, to generate excitement about GWServes. “While cupcakes can get anyone excited,” Mahonez said, “the ease of use and variety of uses with GivePulse has proven to be a plus for student participation.” In addition, GW helped students to onboard at the start of the semester, and show them how to see the affiliations of their courses with community partners. “We use it in real time at our end of semester symposium on community engaged scholarship to have students reflect on their course walls and often faculty give them extra credit for this.”

By helping to get key stakeholders set up with GivePulse, GW has been able to use the platform to its fullest potential. But this takes time; they point out that new users should not expect perfection right away, and should be willing to go slowly in setting up GivePulse. Once it is set up, however, the results speak for themselves. With all the data available, Mahonez says, “Our challenge now is to decide the most important things we want to know about engagement.” Not a bad challenge to have. 

Deep Dive into the 2020 Carnegie Community Engagement Classification

On January 24, 2020, 119 campuses were notified of receiving the Elective Carnegie Community Engagement Classification in this year’s cycle. Of these 119 campuses, 44 were first-time applicants. The Carnegie Foundation has been classifying higher education institutions since the 1970s, when they organized institutions according to degree level, specialization, and more. The Elective Carnegie Community Engagement Classification was introduced in the early 2000s, with the first classification cycle occurring in 2006. Further information about the history of the classification can be found in “The Elective Carnegie Community Engagement Classification: Constructing a Successful Application for First-Time and Re-Classification Applicants” edited by John Saltmarsh and Mathew Johnson of the Swearer Center at Brown University.

Institutions choose to apply for the classification for a variety of reasons. It is a prestigious classification, based upon a rigorous application process with a foundational framework to challenge institutions to think forward. Many institutions apply to receive the classification — and by applying, institutions will put themselves into a process of evaluating  their institution-wide community engagement commitments. The by-product of going through this framework will be a chance to get a multi-faceted deep dive and reflection on community engagement commitments and practices at your institution. Institutions who do not receive the classification receive feedback to inform their community engagement roadmap, and can reapply in the next classification cycle. Institutions may also recognize areas in which increased efforts in data collection will improve their strategic plans, shifting their operations to gather this data before the next cycle.

The Elective Carnegie Community Engagement Classification is a prestigious classification, based upon a rigorous application process with a foundational framework to challenge institutions to think forward. 

Moving forward, the classification is renewed every six years and reclassification is available every two. Between the 2015 and 2020 classification cycles, a total of 359 institutions are now classified as Community Engaged campuses. Of the 119 campuses that were either newly classified or reclassified in the 2020 cycle, 67 were public and 52 private. 3 were two-year institutions, while the remainder were four-year. Institutions that received the classification were wide-ranging in their research interests, program offerings, and location, with 47 of the 50 states represented. 

GivePulse is excited to have provided tech and platform support to the Carnegie Management Team, housed in the Swearer Center at Brown University, as they revised and streamlined the process. Georgina Manok, Assistant Director of Research and Assessment at the Swearer Center at Brown University, says that having everything together in one online portal allowed real time evaluation. Updates to the online Carnegie framework included the creation of a review process to evaluate and maintain reviewer notes on an application, an improved workflow, and access to data critical to the evaluation process. For Manok, “to access all this information and be able to analyze it in real time with all sorts of metadata has been amazing.” “Now we are beginning to think about how to use this technology to maximize transparency and participation in the review process for the 2023 cycle,” says Mathew Johnson, Associate Dean of Engaged Scholarship and Executive Director of the Swearer Center at Brown University. 

“To access all this information and be able to analyze it in real time with all sorts of metadata has been amazing.” 

Revision of the application process has gone well beyond the application portal. According to a document created by the Swearer Center, the revision process considered “both changes in the field and gaps in the framework.” Oversight of the framework revision process was led by Manok, Johnson, and Saltmarsh. Primary goals of the revision were to incorporate input from scholars in the field, to review current literature, to listen for emergent fields at national convenings, and to solicit formal input on identified issues. These revisions incorporated changes proposed by members of the National Advisory Committee. In her informational work for campuses, “So You’re Carnegie Classified, Now What?”, Manok suggests that classification is the moment “to plan what the next chapter of community engagement looks like on your campus.” Many campuses who receive the classification use this recognition to guide strategic planning for the institution, particularly looking forward toward reclassification in ten years’ time. The momentum of the classification process can be used to create sustainable infrastructures and to educate a campus (its departments, programs and institution) about the importance of the classification and commitment to it. 

The momentum of the classification can be used “to create sustainable infrastructures and to educate your campus about the importance of the classification and your commitment to it.” 

The collective community engagement data captured through GivePulse from the applications in this 2020 cycle as well as earlier ones, has benefits beyond those to individual institutions. The aggregate dataset can help tell a national story about how community engagement ebbs and flows, particularly regarding how engagement continues to evolve and be prioritized by in institutions as a way to develop the next generation of citizens and leaders for our communities.

The continuous improvement exemplified by campuses who continue to evolve their practice will be embodied in the revisions for the 2023 classification cycle. Those revisions are  already in the works. The 2023 revision cycle will open an online portal for contributions to the revision process in the next month. The classification is also piloting internationally. “It’s been really enriching to see the context of community engagement in different places,” Manok says. “This brings a lot of great learning back to the US.” They are halfway through the pilot project, with representatives from institutions in Canada and Australia doing their midpoint convenings this month. Looking forward, we hope to do more collaborations in the global south and in non-English speaking countries.”

“We are learning a lot from the reciprocal process we have been following in the international pilot that will undoubtedly be iterated onto the 2023 revisions,” said Mathew Johnson. ”We are grateful for the tech support that GivePulse volunteered for this round of application submissions and look forward to utilizing their tech expertise to also add to our continuous improvement.”