In today's difficult economy, colleges and universities are suffering like they never have before. Fundraising levels have dropped dramatically, and the amount donated annually by supporters is roughly half of what it was a few years ago. Endowments are suffering, which impacts schools' ability to support students and programs. In addition, with federal and state budget cuts also running rampant, faculty and staff are being laid off, regardless of their credentials and ability.
From a constituent standpoint, alumni support, often calculated through levels of volunteerism and mentoring, has also dropped, and fewer and fewer graduates are getting or remaining engaged with the schools to which they owe their success. Placement rates are at all-time lows and the challenge of creating a culture of alumni support, particularly among new graduates, is more daunting than ever. Everyone is facing serious challenges.
In the midst of the above dynamic, there is an often-overlooked initiative that academic institutions have at their disposal—that of student ambassador programs. Too often, institutional leaders are either unaware of the benefits these programs provide, do not acknowledge their significance, or lack the drive to create and nurture them. Today, because the most pressing dictate is to simply "get money in the door," schools maintain a myopic focus on the short term, not acknowledging the long-term benefits that student ambassador clubs provide.
From our experience in starting a number of ambassador programs, we would like to share observations on the benefits of doing so. Contrary to popular belief, ambassador programs are relatively inexpensive, cost effective, and provide win-win scenarios for all parties involved with running them. Read on to learn what ambassador programs are, how they work, the benefits to be gained by the schools that create them, and the rewards to students who are involved with them.
Student ambassador groups are usually created as a student club, either within a small college or university setting or within a specific division (business school, law school, etc.) of a larger academic institution. At their heart, they are designed to support the operational aspects of the division or school in which they are formed. Historically, their scope has included, but has not been limited to, assisting with alumni relations and stewardship, supporting academic initiatives, promoting new programs, and engaging members of the local business community. The more successful examples have also included a programming and development component for the benefit of student members.
The rationale behind forming a formal student club is this: as part of a school's recognized student group infrastructure, it will receive official recognition and necessary financial support. However, depending upon a school's needs and funding channels, ambassador clubs can also be developed and operated under the control of functional departments such as an alumni and/or development office.
Functionally, creation of an ambassador group begins with selection of executive officers, usually three to five, depending upon the desired scope for the program. Student officers should display leadership qualities, bring relevant management and business experience, and have a demonstrated desire to forge the group's mission and sustainability. Officer candidates are typically reviewed and selected by an appointed advisor or set of advisors (faculty and/or staff based). Upon appointment, a formal constitution or set of bylaws should be established by the student executives, under the guidance of the advisors. These usually include verbiage on member selection, voting, participation requirements, fundraising, committee structure, and other relevant issues particular to the school or division.
Actual student members are traditionally selected by application, interview, and review by the student officers (and advisors, if so chosen). Relevant selection criteria typically include academic performance (typically a 3.0/4.0 GPA), personality, and one's ability to bring additional value to the organization. The number of student members can vary, but it is recommended to start small in the first year and then increase membership over time.
Once members have been selected, a volunteer/event schedule should be created where ambassadors will support school events during the school year. In addition, committees that will help further the longevity of the organization should be formed and staffed by members. A regular meeting schedule should also be created for both the executive cabinet and the ambassador group as a whole.
It is also important to choose and begin coordinating programming opportunities early, due to the challenges of working with outside speakers, facilitators, and volunteers. Programming can include, but shouldn't be limited to, bringing in guest speakers and industry professionals, providing professional networking opportunities for students, and offering supplemental training and developmental opportunities.
As mentioned earlier, there are many benefits to hosting student ambassador organizations. The first is that schools can showcase their "best and brightest" talent. There is nothing more influential than showing alumni, donors, and business partners that a school's caliber of students is continuously improving. In addition, constituent groups love to engage students and hear about their interests, involvement, and aspirations. The powerful rapport that often develops between outside supporters and engaged students is quite remarkable. In part, it helps create the warm, fuzzy feeling that leads supporters to reach for their checkbooks and make contributions. It is also what feeds the pipeline of a school's volunteers, mentors, and boosters.
In today's era of diversity initiatives and councils, a student ambassador club is also a great vehicle to highlight a school's commitment to inclusion. Through representation at events, sitting on academic panels, and participating in mentorship programs with the local community, student ambassadors represent the advancement of diversity measures. Their involvement and visibility in a prestigious student organization sends a clear message that inclusion is a school's top priority. It welcomes and encourages other diverse prospective students to attend and get involved.
A student ambassador club will also provide a school with a volunteer base to assist with events and programs. In this era of having to do more with less, student ambassadors provide a free resource at alumni functions, award banquets, affinity group meetings, and additional related gatherings that would otherwise require full-time staff or other cost-based talent. By incorporating a student ambassador program, schools can realize a cost savings in addition to the aforementioned reputational benefits.
When successfully managed, student ambassador groups and their members are highly regarded. Put another way, membership in a prestigious ambassador organization can be a strong selling point on a resume, particularly when employers today are looking for candidates with leadership, management, and social responsibility experience. In essence, membership in an ambassador club can be a significant differentiator on a resume.
Another important student benefit stems from the professional networking opportunities that ambassadors are afforded. These include the chance to foster personal and professional relationships with external donors, school supporters, and business community members. These contacts are an important vehicle for internship opportunities and, ultimately, career employment. Internally, the exposure that comes from interaction with deans, administrators, and faculty can also create a powerful reference base when needed.
Developmental benefits include training in essential areas such as networking, job search skills, and leadership. Events such as "shadow days" with local executives or at local firms, small group seminars, and guest speakers also add a dimension of practical know-how to the theoretical material students learn in class. These insights can be of great value while ambassadors are in school and more so as they approach graduation and the working world.
As stated earlier, in today's economy, resources are often limited and funding is scarce. This could make starting a student ambassador club appear challenging. In addition, managing a club of this nature requires time, energy, and human capital. This might lead an institution to shy away from doing so.
However, as we have seen, when managed properly, the benefits of having a student ambassador program significantly outweigh the costs. When supported by an engaged and nurturing hand, student ambassador groups take on a life of their own. Students look to be part of them, alumni support them, businesspeople endorse them, and schools leverage multiple benefits from them. When done right, student ambassador clubs are a win-win-win-win scenario from which everybody benefits.
David Ruderman is an instructor of management at the University of Colorado, Denver Business School. Karen Niparko is the director of the university's Graduate Career Connections Office and principal of Corporate Solutions Consulting, a human resources and operations consulting practice. They can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.