Engaging stakeholders during COVID-19

4 ways higher ed leaders can inspire meaningful engagement when in-person events to maintain connections aren't possible
By: | January 1, 2021
Getty Images, John LundGetty Images, John Lund

The pandemic has certainly disrupted the way of life at many colleges and universities this year. Without in-person classes and the ability to safely gather, it might be difficult for students, staff, business partners and others to feel like they’re still part of a community. Times like this call for creative solutions from leadership.

Leeatt Rothschild, Packed with Purpose

Leeatt Rothschild, Packed with Purpose

As a result, it’s more important than ever for institutional leaders to actively connect with stakeholders and to help facilitate meaningful interactions. Here are four ways administrators can engage their stakeholders at every level and emerge from the pandemic with their most important relationships intact.

1. Hold authentic, personalized conversations 

Now that most communication happens remotely, err on the side of over-engaging with people to make up for what’s lost when you can’t meet face-to-face.

For example, department heads and school leaders might want to call some students directly to find out how they’re doing. It’s important for schools to give students a chance to share their experiences and learn = how to support them. Providing direct access to leadership is a great way to demonstrate your institution’s investment in individual success. 

Schools should also reach out to sponsors, donors, and other partners by phone and mail. People will appreciate hearing firsthand how their actions and contributions have made a positive impact on students’ lives and the school itself this year.

2. Create valuable opportunities for group interaction

It’s equally important to give faculty, staff, students, and others opportunities to connect by organizing events such as virtual leadership conferences, guest speaker talks and networking.

These events should present a creative break from more traditional video conferencing that many people have grown accustomed to in the past several months.

For instance, events can include virtual Q&A sessions with guest speakers, “poster” sessions with short, pre-recorded YouTube videos, and collaborative workshops where attendees can learn and try new activities together.

3. Send gifts that demonstrate a commitment to shared values

A thoughtful gift can delight recipients and build long-lasting relationships. Especially during a pandemic, schools have many reasons to send gifts:

  • Congratulating new graduates in lieu of holding a formal ceremony
  • Showing appreciation for essential staff who clean spaces or continue to serve students every day
  • Thanking school sponsors, donors, and event speakers for their continued support

But what kind of gift is best? One study found that when a gift reflects the giver, it results in stronger feelings of closeness between the giver and the recipient.

This means schools should give gifts that reflect their core institutional values, such as doing good or giving back. 

Whether it’s a coffee mug, chocolate-covered pretzels, or a notebook with your institution’s logo on it, a gift that makes a positive social impact is one that stakeholders will cherish and will create a lasting impression.

4. Involve the campus community with local relief efforts

Stakeholders aren’t limited to students, faculty and partners. They also include businesses and families that rely on colleges in their towns for activity, employment and growth.

 As campuses struggle to maintain a sense of community while social distancing, education leaders have a unique opportunity: to galvanize the school population into deeper support of the neighborhoods, towns and cities they call home.

Though it’s common for student groups to engage in community outreach, now is also a great time to engage sponsors and corporate partners in local relief efforts as well. Some places to start may include:

  • Safe volunteer opportunities
  • Fundraisers for local businesses
  • Food, clothing, and other resource collection for local nonprofits

As with gift-giving choices, these activities are ways institutions can act on their values. The more that schools acknowledge their symbiotic relationship with their local communities, the greater the benefit for everyone. 

What you do during tough times makes a difference

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, many colleges have already taken proactive measures to engage with the people who are most vital to their institution’s future. 

Pandemic or not, leaders in higher education have the opportunity to actively increase their outreach during uncertain times. Through those efforts, their schools build stronger bonds and demonstrate a commitment to their local, campus and alumni communities.

Leeatt Rothschild has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of business, sustainability and brand purpose. In 2016 she founded Packed with Purpose, a corporate gifting company that embeds social impact into the everyday act of gift-giving, from empowering underserved women with job skills to supporting sustainability efforts.