Developing a Great Organization

One of the interesting challenges members of student groups face is building a great organization — one that is built to last over a period of time, is true to its mission, and provides a rewarding experience for members. Some of the characteristics that distinguish great student organizations at Northern Michigan University include:

  • Putting a great deal of emphasis on recruiting, orienting, and retaining members. Members are the lifeblood of any organization and the really good organizations approach membership as an on-going process rather than something that is done in the fall. Great organizations also orient new members to the group and go out of their way to make membership an enjoyable and beneficial experience.
  • Setting realistic, achievable, and challenging goals that move the organization forward. Organizations are either moving forward or backward; there is no staying the same. Forward-moving organizations set goals at least once every year and use maximum input from members in the process. These organizations also keep their goals in front of the group during the year as a motivator.
  • Involving as many members as possible in making decisions. As the saying goes, "people support what they help create." Wide-spread involvement usually results in better decisions and reinforces that members are valued for their thoughts and ideas.
  • Frequent evaluation. Great organizations evaluate programs, projects, the experience members are having in the group, and the year in general at the conclusion of each year. Through the recommendations that come out of evaluations, great student organizations are continuously improving everything they do.
  • Developing current and future leaders. Skill Builder! workshops, which are offered each semester, provide a variety of leadership skill development experiences. Many student organizations that have a national affiliation have opportunities to attend regional and national leadership conferences. A number of student organizations at NMU encourage up-and-coming leaders to participate in the Student Leader Fellowship Program. Perhaps most importantly, outstanding organizations orient members, often informally, with the leadership opportunities and "how to's" within their group. This can be done by "shadowing," mentoring, and informal conversations. One of the reasons really good student organizations never have a leadership vacuum is because they are continuously preparing up-and-coming leaders.
  • Running productive and effective meetings. Meetings can have a couple of purposes with the most obvious one being the discussion of business that needs to be attended to and the making of appropriate decisions. A second purpose for many organizations is taking time to socialize, bond members to the organization, and enjoy each others company. Some organizations separate business from social time while others run informal meetings that incorporate both. The degree of formality used for meetings is dependant upon the type of organization. It is important for your organization to periodically look at how your meetings are conducted, whether they accomplish their purpose and whether or not more or less meetings are required. It is also a good idea to shake things up once in a while by having refreshments, conducting an activity (there are thousands of teambuilders and icebreakers in the Leadership Library) or doing something else to keep things from becoming routine.
  • Communicating frequently and effectively. Good communication keeps members involved with an organization. Most students are very busy people, and there are times when they will not be at meetings and/or will be out of touch. Routinely sending out meeting notices and agendas, meeting minutes, updates, and requests for opinions and ideas will keep members engaged with your organization. How and when your organization communicates should be a well thought-out and coordinated plan.
  • Programming for a purpose. Programming for student organizations covers a lot of ground. It can include group activities, a campus-wide program or event, and community service projects. Carefully consider how programming opportunities relate to the purpose and goals of your organization and select those opportunities that are the best fit. Great organizations plan, promote, and participate in programs in an energized and high quality manner.
  • Building and maintaining traditions. Most great organizations have some long-standing traditions — annual events, a logo, standard t-shirts or sweatshirts, ways in which they run meetings, start and end the year, welcome new members, etc. Traditions make an organization unique, and they help members realize they are a part of something special. If your organization has traditions, be sure to maintain them. If it doesn't, consider establishing a few.
  • Maintaining a historical record. Members of special organizations use pictures, scrapbooks, journals, and files to keep a record of who has belonged to their group, what it has accomplished, awards and recognition it has received, and to record the special stories that every organization has. Consider having a "historian" as an organization officer; future members will appreciate it and so will you when you come back to campus in 10 years for Homecoming!
  • Staying in touch with alumni. With electronic communication, this has become very easy to do. The Alumni Relations Office can help you track down "lost" alumni. Alumni of your organization can help your current group in many ways. Consider having a bi-annual or annual newsletter for alumni (they would love to hear what you are currently doing!), sponsoring a reunion at Homecoming, or anything else that can connect your organization with former members.
  • Effectively utilizing an adviser. It is no coincidence that many of the great student organizations have carefully selected an adviser and have devoted a considerable amount of time to developing a productive relationship. Advisers can provide valuable advice and a different perspective. They can also recount past experiences with your organization.
  • Planning for transitions. Maintaining a successful student organization over a number of years is a difficult thing to do. Turnover in members and officers occurs annually. Summer constitutes a sudden and lengthy break in operations. Great organizations plan ahead to ensure quick start-up in the fall with well-trained officers. They also leave excellent records from the previous year(s).

Additional information and resources on all of the topics presented in this section can be found in the Leadership Library, located in 1207 of the University Center. In addition, Center for Student Enrichment staff members are always available for consultation and assistance.