How to Unleash the Power of the (Virtual) Alumni Volunteer

Traditionally, advancement has asked alumni for three things: time, talent, and treasure. Elaborating further on this beat-to-death slogan, we ask our alumni to engage with us, lend their skills in a volunteer capacity, and make a financial contribution to their dear old alma mater. But while the the triple Ts easily roll off the tongue, we’ve reached a point where we have to destroy the alliteration with the addition of a new word: networks.

What have we learned about alumni in the past five years? They’re all on social media and continue to spend hours a week liking, tweeting, and sharing. They also have come to prefer peer-to-peer recommendations and communications. Here we find a sweet spot that higher-ed advancement is just beginning to tap into: the ability to turn an alum’s personal social media presence into a megaphone for his/her alma mater. In the coming paragraphs, I’ll provide a glimpse into “CornellSOCIAL” and share with you why my office is a huge proponent of online ambassadors.



Defying the Throttling

As social networks evolve, we’re being forced to spend money to maintain respectable levels of organic reach. While I remain a staunch supporter of social media advertising and boosting posts, utilizing the power of your alumni’s online networks is an exceptional way to boost organic reach AND provide an engaging volunteer role for the alum. On our CornellSOCIAL platform (see the user dashboard below), alumni share the content we choose for them to share.



Gaming Engagement

There are many different ways for an ambassador to earn points and climb the leaderboard on CornellSOCIAL—including connecting their social accounts, sharing content, recruiting new ambassadors, and using defined hashtags. We realize there are a plethora of more exciting things for alumni to do while they’re eating up time on social media, so the experience has to be fun for them. The leaderboard and point system have ignited the competitive spirit of our alums, while simultaneously boosting the organic reach of our content.

Badges (below) are another nice gamification mechanic that don’t really mean much at first glance, but they do provide alumni with a checklist of accomplishments they can unlock, which in turn provides some additional bragging opportunities.



Ambassadors also get a real-time look at their “scorecard” to see which pieces of content are being engaged with and where they’re earning the most points. Considering the increasing number of networks people are connected to, this provides clarity for the volunteer to know where their posts are succeeding and where they should possibly re-post.


Just in case ambassadors are confused, or want to know how they can earn more points (seriously, they get competitive), there’s a breakdown on their dashboard that takes them through the various ways in which they can boost their score. The four tabs each explain how to rack up the points. Why do they want points? Free shwag! At the end of each pre-determined promotional period, the ambassadors topping the leaderboard unlock free stuff from the campus store. 

Sharing with Ease

The scoring system we just looked at might lead you to think that sharing of content is difficult and/or confusing. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The process is simple: Once an ambassador creates an account on CornellSOCIAL with their email address, we email them the new content for sharing. The message in their inbox will look like this:


The message shows the ambassador the copy that will appear on the different networks they have connected, along with the preview image. Assuming the ambassador is still logged in, clicking the “Share Now” button will instantly push the updates out to their connected networks.  If they’re not logged in, they’ll be redirected to CornellSOCIAL where they will log in and click “Share Now.” If they fail to share previous content we posted, not a problem. Ambassadors can retroactively post content from a message carousel on their personal dashboard under the section titled “Share More.”

Any time you try to gamify engagement, it’s important that you don’t make it a “one-time only” kind of gimmick. Most people are busy and aren’t going to share everything right away, so to make them feel like they can still compete, you want to make sure they can jump back into the game within a reasonable amount of time. 

New Alliteration: Valuable Virtual Volunteers

Not only is this a minimal effort volunteer role for an alumnus, but it can also save your marketing and social media teams a bunch of cash by turning what would have been paid boosted reach into “free” organic reach. Thanks to the nifty CornellSOCIAL admin dashboard (powered by Social Toaster), we can see how much money it would have cost us to pay for the same CPC engagement created by our ambassadors.

As you can see, since February (when we began inviting alumni to the CornellSOCIAL platform), our ambassadors have accounted for nearly $5,000 of paid CPC marketing.


Reach and cost-savings are not the only thing online ambassadors can offer—they can also be quite helpful during a social PR crisis. We recently had an unfortunate piece of bad (and false) press go viral during our inaugural giving day. Thanks to our 300+ virtual volunteers, we were able to drown out the social trolling with positive content that kept our audience focused on the giving day and not on the erroneous, inflammatory posts showing up on the social web. When it comes to a crisis communications plan, online ambassadors should be on the frontline.

A Win for Everyone

We live in a busy world, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to convince alumni to commit to volunteer roles that eat up time and require them to attend or plan an event. We’ll always need those roles and should not eliminate them, but we can utilize emerging technologies to provide alumni with a virtual volunteer role that’s easy and fun while being extremely beneficial to our advancement offices.

And as tough as it can be to rope alums into “traditional” volunteer roles, it’s becoming even more difficult to reach our alumni audience on social media. We’re competing with shrinking organic reach and increased social content from other brands and businesses, especially other nonprofits. Online ambassadors can cut through all of that and personally deliver our message to their peers—the exact people we want to reach. We love to think there’s power in our brand, but for many, it’s as much a turnoff as it is inspiration. We need to anoint messengers who have the “street cred” to make our communications more attractive—and that’s exactly what we have in our social ambassadors.

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