How Universities Positively Impact Communities (and How to Track it)

How Universities Positively Impact Communities (and How to Track it)

By: Emily Kane Miller

As social impact work extends from traditional philanthropy and volunteerism to include community outreach, employee engagement, sustainability work and so much more, we wanted to create a tool for today’s leading-edge impact players – one that would better track and manage the entirety of their social impact data, measure KPIs and ROI, help deploy resources more effectively, and support sharing this work with internal and external stakeholders more powerfully. (For more context, you can read our founder’s “why I built this” story here.)

For thousands of years, educational institutions have served as a definitive source of learning, inspiration, connection, and ultimately societal progress – across the globe.  All this to say - schools and universities have been creating positive value long before “social impact” was a thing. 

That said, all too often, the total impact of this invaluable work is not tracked and not reported – which means that your community, campus, alumni, and other key constituents don’t understand the extent of your impact. 

A critical way to address this issue is to track 100% of the good your organization does for your community, your employees and students, and our world. With all of this data in one place, you can truly wrap your arms around your organization’s impact – and manage it, strategically grow it, and share it.

We categorize impact work through our Ethos Lever Model: A system Emily Kane Miller, our founder, created to help busy social impact teams stay organized. Each Lever provides an opportunity to create value, but when strategically pulled together – the results are a powerful and cohesive social impact effort.

Here are just a few examples of how we see colleges and universities pulling various Levers – all of which (of course) can be managed in Ethos Tracking.  

*Most organizations focus their efforts on 4-5 of the Levers, so no stress if only a few speak to you. 

  • Cash: Cash donations are perhaps the most traditional method of giving. The Cash Lever refers to flexing your dollars to benefit social impact – whether dollars flow to nonprofits, advocacy work, or even other for-profit entities to serve your overall impact goals. 
    • Many universities make donations to nonprofits – some on an ongoing basis (a portion of sports game ticket sales, for example), and some in honor of particular occasions, like a donation to a nonprofit committed to community based work that’s important to the campus community or larger partnerships with NPOs related to gender-equity, diversity, or STEM education, just to name a few.   
    • Student clubs and events both receive and generate donations throughout the year. While perhaps the individual donations are smaller, when tracked collectively the dollars (and impact!) can be quite big.  Tracking this funding captures the impact your students have on campus and the surrounding community. 
    • The impact of your cash can reach beyond grants – many organizations make donations to political organizations and candidates that furthers their social impact goals. You can also flex your impact dollars with for-profit partners, which can include working with vendors who share your values, or spending money in a values-aligned way (local procurement, for example). If these dollars are part of your social impact work – make sure to capture that data, too. 
  • In-kind: In-kind donations of non-monetary goods or services can generate significant positive impact. This is when you take the products or services unique to your school and donate (or discount) them to partners, individuals, or organizations who need it most, and wouldn’t otherwise have access. This is a huge opportunity for universities that hold highly desirable resources – like event space, tickets to galleries, games or speaking series, merchandise, etc. 
    • While many universities opt to donate assets, others choose to give expertise – for example, some offer online classes or site visits to support underserved populations interested in pursuing higher education.
  • Volunteerism: Providing voluntary labor (skilled or unskilled!) is a popular way for universities to engage their greater organization around their social impact work. Volunteerism might take shape through an annual student volunteer day, or through activating your organization’s broader community on an ongoing basis (ex:, leveraging your whole campus for giant volunteer opportunities to support neighboring communities). Even think about clinics or programs that include pro-bono community projects, which can be tracked as part of your University’s collective impact. 
  • Advocacy: The Advocacy Lever refers to bringing individual or “brand” leadership to support a cause or policy. As we define it, Advocacy includes legislative support at the local, state, federal and international levels, of course – but also work that’s done through the private sector. This includes engaging with private associations (ex: trade associations or local Chambers of Commerce) to update important protocols and policies, which carry ripple effects for your students, faculty and staff, and the broader community.
    • During the height of the pandemic – a time when in-person classes and activities  weren’t feasible – we saw many universities step up to secure public and private support for their individual campus-based employees
    • We’ve also seen universities successfully engage elected officials on legislation and public funding for key higher education funding and programs 
  • Employee Initiatives: This Lever refers to companies taking “above and beyond” action to support employees and their families – in other words, bringing the power of your social impact work to the people that work for you, from your professors, to campus security, to cafeteria staff and beyond. 
    • Many universities are committed to upholding Employee Initiatives through an array of benefits – including, for example, wellness programs, dynamic workforce training programs, and EAFs (Employee Assistance Funds), which provide quick financial assistance to employees facing emergency situations.  
  • Community: This Lever focuses on engaging with your neighborhood community, but it also includes your online presence. Leveraging your university’s power to engage with people – in person or through your online channels – and mobilizing that audience to engage with the issues you care about, is unquestionably part of your social impact effort. as an educational institution, your voices are particularly respected and valued, so the Community Lever is a uniquely powerful tool for you.
    • Universities might host a campus blood drive or offer their stadium space for a benefit event after a natural disaster.  
    • Campuses with libraries and museums often host free educational and art events throughout the year for the local community with a broader community-based message. 
    • Many universities use social media or blogs to share educational information around key issues facing their partners and the local community. 
  • Supply chain: There is often an opportunity to advance your social and environmental goals by prioritizing mission-aligned vendors. Consider your contracts and relationships, and think about where it could be possible to build impact into those contractual relationships. Many universities can opt for suppliers who share their values, work in the local community, or - in a myriad of other ways - further their social impact objectives.
    • From the company that produces your merchandise to the vendors supplying food in your cafeteria there are plenty of opportunities to integrate impact. 
    • Finding mission-aligned vendors doesn’t always require switching suppliers – you can start by reaching out to the groups that are already part of your supply chain, and identifying how you can level up impact, together. 
  • Sustainability: Today’s social impact leaders are all thinking about sustainability – measuring, managing, and reducing your environmental footprint is critical – and should be viewed alongside other impact data (not in a vacuum). That said, it can be hard to keep track of everything you’re doing, especially if some of it is related to vendors or downstream partners.   
    • Many organizations commit to being carbon neutral by a set year, and in the interest of transparency publish detailed sustainability reports
    • Many universities are committed to expanding the number and reach of sustainability and environmental justice courses and research.
    • Campuses across the country are increasing biodiversity and building or renovating facilities to be LEED certified.  
  • DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are fundamental to social impact success, and – of course – if you want to get DEI right, you must measure it, manage it, and stay accountable to your goals.
    • In the interest of advancing diversity, some universities have committed to filling 50+% of leadership positions with women or BIPOC employees. 
    • Most universities are also looking to attract a diverse student body. 
    • Affinity Days or campus marches are a popular way to show support for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities.  
  • Fundraising: While every Lever is critical, money matters. Many educational institutions use their brand, alumni network, game days, etc., to raise third-party funds that support scholarships and mission-aligned nonprofit partners. There are many creative ways to mobilize your community to contribute:
    • Some universities run 50/50 raffles at sports games where 50% of profits are channeled into social impact work, or special events or educational programs where ticket sales are donated to a partner NPO.
    • Universities might donate a percentage of ticket or merch sales to a designated cause of importance to the campus, or provide consumers the option to round up and donate the excess 
    • Student clubs and groups are often raising money for causes, and while on a smaller scale, their impact can be a meaningful part of your annual story.
  • Impact Investing: This Lever refers to organizations using the corpus of a foundation or other working capital to invest in mission-aligned for-profit businesses. 
    • If your university’s investment strategy supports its social impact objectives, that data belongs alongside your other social impact efforts. 

Despite our best efforts, multi-faceted impact work can often fall through the cracks without a cohesive system to track it all on an ongoing basis. All of this data should be harnessed and laddered into one location – so when the time comes, it’s easy to communicate the extent of your incredible work to your campus, your leadership, employees, alumni, future students, community stakeholders, and beyond. 
If this sounds interesting, we’d love to chat! For an Ethos Tracking demo, click here.

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