How You Can Help Student Organizations Become Self-Sustaining Year After Year

My most-attended workshop each fall semester is about how student organizations can recruit and retain members.

Student leaders know that it’s an important topic for the health of their organizations. However, unless they are affiliated with a national or regional dues-collecting organization that gives them recruitment support, most of their recruitment knowledge only goes as far as the student organization fair.

To help student leaders identify the weaknesses in their recruitment and retention strategies, the “anti-problem” thought experiment may be useful. An anti-problem is a hypothetical situation in which you have a problem that is the opposite of the one that you are actually trying to solve. So, instead of trying to figure out “how do we get more members”, ask “why do we have too many members?” 

By identifying how they are currently successful in recruitment and retention, student leaders can more easily identify what may be hampering their recruitment and retention efforts.

The strategies that are outlined below can further help students fill in those gaps to create a self-sustaining student organization year after year.

Recruitment

Getting new members in the door is half of the battle in sustaining a student organization. Recruitment is about more than just marketing; it’s about relationships. This includes interpersonal relationships between members and non-members, as well as the relationship between the organization and the rest of the campus community.

gif of a woman on her cell phone saying 'relationships are complex'

The following practices can increase the quality of student organizations’ recruiting methods, with the ultimate goal of retaining those members long-term.

Recruit for diversity

Student organizations benefit from having diverse memberships through the increase in perspectives. Recruiting a diverse membership has to be an intentional strategy that the student leaders buy into. The article “Why Diversity Matters” by Joy Pedersen is a great starting point for an advisor to discuss diversity’s role within students’ educational experiences.

These strategies can help a student organization recruit for diversity:

  • Co-sponsor events with affinity organizations on campus.
  • Take part in diversity awareness initiatives. (For example, the organization could lead a “We’re a Culture, Not A Costume” initiative by sharing information on social media and highlighting the issue of cultural appropriation. Encourage student leaders to take ownership of such an initiative rather than expecting the diversity office to do all of the work.)
  • Build diversity topics into recruitment workshops. (You could, for example, address how implicit bias affects whom students choose to interact with and how universal design principles can create more accessible flyers.)

Always be in recruitment mode

Networking experts know that a great connection can happen anywhere at any time. By adopting this mindset, student leaders can maximize recruiting opportunities. When it comes to hosting events, always be thinking about how to convert attendees into members.

Conventional ways to grow organizations are to attend student organization fairs, co-sponsor events with other organizations, and table in high-traffic areas or during popular events.

But you should encourage them to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment. An organization could have a “bring a friend” meeting wherein members receive a raffle ticket for each friend they bring along. Organizations could also partner with the campus newspaper by inviting them to cover a popular event that they host.

This article provides additional tips for designing marketing pitches and presentation boards.

Retention

A successful retention strategy starts with understanding why students don’t stay involved with the organization. Three common reasons are losing interest, having less time, and not feeling engaged.

Consider also reviewing the GRAPE Principle with your students, which describes the most common reasons why students join student organizations: Growth, recognition, achievement, participant, and enjoyment. 

Then, by checking students in at every organization meeting and measuring the attrition rate throughout the semesters, student leaders can understand which retention strategies are working well.

Now, here’s how to proactively address some of the top reasons why students don’t stay involved.

Loss of interest

gif of a woman shouting 'I'm bored! I'm so bored!'

Students may decide that the experiences an organization offers no longer interest them. This is common, particularly for first-year students who participate in many organizations before selecting a few that capture their interest the most.

Framing this loss of interest as common or to-be-expected can help student leaders maintain confidence in their abilities. They shouldn’t take it personally that not every new member will want to stay.

Advisors can go further by explaining that although this loss of interest may be “typical” it doesn’t have to be “normal.” Defining the situation as “typical” rather than “normal” gets student leaders into the mindset that loss of interest is a problem that they can work toward solving.

One solution is to collect suggestions from members early each semester. A quick survey during the first meeting can help student leaders understand what types of experiences (events, meeting format, leadership opportunities) members want to have.

Another idea is to have student leaders reach out to members via email, text, or another communication channel if they miss more than a few consecutive meetings. Let the member know that the organization values their participation and ask if there is anything that the organization can do to help them stay involved. Many organizations offer a new member the opportunity to be mentored by a more senior member. If so, the mentor should be the first one to reach out.

Limited free time

As the semester progresses, students’ schedules inevitably get busier, forcing them to choose between competing interests. Organization leaders can take away some of that pressure by offering flexibility in the ways that members can engage with the organization.

To start, consider a student’s greatest time commitment to any organization: the weekly meeting. Student leaders can use design thinking to plan a better meeting

Part of the design-thinking process is to turn problems into questions. Here are some questions that you can consider with your advisees:

  • Who is the room? Are they commuters, residential students, predominantly studying certain majors, or representatives of other notable demographics?
  • What are students’ motivations for attending this meeting? They could want updates on the organization’s projects, wish to socialize with peers with whom they share a common interest or identity, want to plan events for the campus community, or enjoy hearing speakers present on professional development topics.
  • If this meeting is wildly successful, what will students feel, know, and do as a result? Student leaders should identify what they want to accomplish through their meeting. They shouldn’t hold a meeting merely because they’re “supposed to.

By answering these questions, student leaders can budget their meeting times to maximize the value that these meetings hold.

gif of a woman saying 'best meeting ever'

For students who can’t commit to attending weekly meetings but would still like to stay involved with the organization, student leaders can offer episodic engagement opportunities. Some examples include signing up for tabling, volunteering at events, and developing social media content for the organization.

Lack of engagement

A member who doesn’t feel engaged by an organization is less likely to be retained. So, you should teach student leaders different methods to engage their members. 

Icebreakers and team-building activities can be used during meetings to add a bit of fun into the usual routine. Even if you only dedicate five minutes to these activities, the organization benefits from community building. While a staff member could facilitate the first few activities to show student leaders how it’s done, the ultimate goal should be for student leaders to develop autonomy and take over facilitation duties.

Another way to engage members is by forming committees. The types of committees an organization creates will depend on its mission. If the organization plans large events, each event could have its own committee, creating subcommittees as needed. Committees can also be organized around members’ common interests, such as a marketing committee in charge of social media accounts and promotional design.

Finally, don’t forget to recognize the contributions that members have made to an organization. Whether it’s weekly, monthly, or at the end of the semester, make time for kudos and awards. The book How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton is a great summary of the power of appreciation. I also recommend exploring the 5 Languages of Appreciation for more ideas.

gif of Leslie Odom Jr saying 'You are extraordinary in every way'

To be self-sustaining, student organizations need recruitment and retention processes that adapt to their changing campus environments. With your help, student leaders can understand how to leverage social media and evolving campus traditions to their advantage when networking, giving them valuable marketing skills.

How have you helped student orgs become self-sustaining? We’d love to hear your success stories @HelloPresence.

Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking, or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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