Leadership and Getting 900 College Students to Show Up on a Saturday Morning

Posted 04.11.2011

Jmubigevent OK, this post is going to sound like a dad who’s proud of his son.  Well, it is, but there are some serious leadership lessons in it as well.

As I’ve written here before, my son, Andy, is a senior at James Madison University.  This past Saturday morning was probably the highlight of his college career.  Andy, his co-chair, Cori Kendrick, and their team from Madison Involved registered over 900 JMU students for a day of service called The Big Event in their host community of Harrisonburg, VA.

Andy’s involvement in The Big Event began in the Spring of 2010 when, in response to some off campus parties that got way out of control, he set up a Facebook group called Dukes Helping Harrisonburg for JMU students who were interested in improving the relationship between the town and the University.  Within a few days, over 2,000 people had joined the group.  The group changed its name to Madison Involved and, with a core committee of 40 students, decided to stage The Big Event as its signature initiative.

There had been previous Big Events at JMU three or four years ago that drew 40 or 50 students.  So, how did Andy, Cori and their team get 900 students to show up this year?  I asked Andy about that yesterday and learned a lot about planning and leadership in the process.

Here’s a brief video of The Big Event kickoff and, following that, are the planning and leadership lessons I learned from Andy:


How to Stage a Big Event:

Planning and Trial Runs Help a Lot:  The Madison Involved leadership team didn’t start with The Big Event as their coming out party.  Over the course of the year, they staged a series of smaller Get Involved days of service that attracted around 40 students at a time.  They learned a lot about organizing through these smaller events and how to work with community service organizations in Harrisonburg to arrange jobs for student volunteers.

Partner with Other Groups:  Previous Big Events were run exclusively by the JMU student government.  This year, the Madison Involved team decided to work closely with the 300 different clubs on campus to recruit teams of student volunteers from the clubs.  Andy and Cori started a tour of club meetings in January to talk up The Big Event.

Learn and Get Help from Others Who’ve Been There:  As they got into the project, Andy and Cori learned that students at other schools had done similar events.  They traveled to Texas A&M in February to learn about that school’s experience and were given the code to set up a registration and project management web site that was key in scaling up The Big Event.

Get the Word Out:  A few weeks before The Big Event, the team flooded the zone on campus with marketing to encourage awareness and sign-ups.  They even contacted the corporate office at Starbucks to get permission to put Big Event stickers on the sleeves of all the Starbucks cups on campus.

How to Lead a Big Event:

The rest of this post is more or less verbatim quotes from Andy on what he learned from leading The Big Event with Cori.  Here are his headlines:

Project Calm: “ It’s important to exude calmness even if you don’t feel that way.  Even if it is a situation where it’s worth freaking out, if the leader freaks out, then everybody else does too and that’s not useful.  If you can’t appear calm, appear collected.   It almost becomes second nature eventually.  It was always in the back of my mind to project calm.  If the co-chairs had been busy freaking out and acted like it couldn’t happen then everyone else would have picked up on that and given up.”

Get the Team Involved in Solving Problems:  “You don’t want to keep problems from people, but you want to project the idea that they’re solvable.  We certainly had times when we thought we were completely screwed.  For example, in the week before the event when we only had 300 jobs lined up and 900 people signed up, a bunch of us were at Starbucks  thinking how in the hell are we going to get 600 more jobs?  We threw it out to the team and brainstormed ideas and by the end of the next day we had 600 more jobs.”

Play Your Position:  “If you’re working with someone else who’s at the exact same level as you, it’s important to separate the work and make sure that you’re not working on the same things.  Play to your strengths and leverage what you bring to the table.”  Andy’s co-chair Cori had a lot of on campus organization experience so she worked the SGA and the University.  Andy had a lot of political organizing experience from working campaigns for the state legislature and the 2008 presidential election so he worked the Harrisonburg community contacts. 

Differences Are Good:  “It’s not necessarily a bad thing if the other person has a leadership style that’s different than yours.  As long as you’re working towards a common goal and a common message, different styles with different audiences can help a lot.”

So that’s what I learned from Andy about mobilizing people to do something good.  What about you?  Which of these lessons land with you?  What have you learned over the years about leading volunteers?