When Elizabeth Housholder, assistant dean for civic engagement, began working at Widener University in November 2011, she became inundated with the volunteer opportunities available to students in the Chester, PA area where Widener is located. Housholder fielded inquiries via phone, voicemail, email, and in person, and then manually entered them into an internal website for students to view. The process was time-consuming and inefficient, and because the site had limited functionality – sorting and searching the list were not options – students hardly used it.
Seeking a way to “work smarter, not harder,” Housholder was inspired by the Cities of Service websites, an online tool which allows cities to link residents to volunteer opportunities. She contacted the website’s host, interactive design studio Cloudred, to see if something similar existed for universities, as she had found that building a site from scratch was well beyond her budget. Cloudred CEO Allen Yee quickly replied to say that the product did not exist, but he believed that higher education could be a potential market for his company.
To build interest in the project, Housholder spoke about the idea whenever she had the chance. She conducted student focus groups and pitched it to faculty and staff at campus events. Finally, she gathered a group of stakeholders that included those who were supportive of the project. She knew that getting buy-in from information technology services (ITS) and university relations would be challenging because the website would be external and the branding would not match Widener’s style. Housholder assured ITS that students would not need to enter personal information beyond name and email address to use the site. She answered the branding issue by suggesting that the website strengthened the university’s commitment to civic engagement in Chester and the surrounding area. A major selling point was the price. Building the site would not cost anything as Cloudred gave an in-kind donation of $15,000 to get the product off the ground.
“We don’t have a formal Center for Civic Engagement,” said Housholder. “This was a way to create an infrastructure and virtual hub for our community without needing to devote additional financial resources.”
The portal—www.widener.edu/serve—launched in August 2013. Housholder worked extensively to create buzz around the launch, including giveaways, signage, flyers, a press release and presentations. Widener’s public relations office also create a “Video of the Week” to feature the site’s capabilities. Housholder also began a weekly e-newsletter sent to nearly 1,000 students, which she continues to send.
The website has been a huge success. Community partners can create profiles and log in to the site directly to post volunteer opportunities. Faculty can post information for service-learning courses. Students can create profiles and receive email alerts with service opportunities that match their interests, skills and availability. They can also keep track of their service hours, complete clearance forms to work with at-risk populations and arrange transportation to and from service activities.
The site is used extensively. There have been more than 4,000 unique visitors to the site since it launched. Widener’s community partners report more volunteers, and students and faculty rave about the site’s usability, stating that it removes the traditional barriers to serving in the community.
“It’s meeting students where they are – online,” said Housholder.
In the future, Housholder hopes to create a mobile app for the civic engagement portal.
Since civic engagement is part of our collective mission, we want to hear from you. How do you process service opportunities from the community and then communicate them to students? How do you document your civic engagement outcomes? Call to action…