High turnover and natural burnout can be a crippling problem in any volunteer-based organization. With volunteers coming in and out, how can we make sure that we do not lose expertise along the way? Even more so than other chapters, college-based chapters face this challenge constantly, with a complete turnover every 4 years, as students graduate. The University of Massachusetts student-run “Difference Makers” chapter strives to provide a solution to this problem.
“We are modeled on fraternities,” said president Craig Kelley, with a chuckle of embarrassment at the comparison. There is a leadership team with required school positions such as a President and Vice President, as well as added positions based on needs, such as Design Captain, Recipient Captain, and Print Team Captain. In pursuit of the best organizational model, Difference Makers meets with other organizations on campus once a semester to collaborate and learn from each other organizations’ challenges and solutions.
The chapter was founded three years ago by Peter Larson and Craig Kaminski, with the current leadership Craig Kelley, Katie Elwell, and Alex Lambert as early members. At first, the team consisted of biology, mechanical engineering, exercise physiology, and plastic engineering majors, remembers Katie, but now, Difference Makers represents many disciplines, including english, education, and peace and conflict majors, who bring expertise in writing, child development, and education. Each added discipline is represented with unique leadership positions to create to lasting value in the organization.
With these set positions, the team’s primary focus is on leadership changes, mentorship, and teaching technical details. Each year, the President steps down in December so there is a full semester for the new president to take the reins under the mentorship of the graduating president. Soon, the chapter hopes to provide a guidebook for future Difference Makers volunteers and other chapters who hope to replicate their sustainable volunteer structure.
Once a month, every volunteer, from leadership to new recruits, comes together for “design reviews” where collaborative input goes into every new design. In addition to creating the best product, this process also provides an opportunity for new volunteers to observe and participate in the the design process before they begin their own projects. With this excellent support structure, the team has delivered twenty hands and produces three to four new designs each semester. Many of these designs are task-specific, such as their “Ninja hand,” which allows the child to hold a halloween bag and pick up candy at the same time. Other hands they have designed allow children to hold a baseball bat, row in a boat, help sweep up at a horse farm, or swim using a “mermaid fin” design.
“The kids are tough, resilient, and independent,” reflects Craig. Clearly, the team is dedicated to assisting these independent kids long-term through their internal mentorship of student volunteers.