Va. University Employees Use Collective Wisdom to Solve Problems
Mary Blair Zakaib says she rallied fundraisers, alumni-affairs workers, and others at the
University of Virginia to join forces “to tap all the knowledge and resources out there.”
By Eric Frazier
FIVE YEARS AGO, more than a dozen employees at the University of Virginia de-
cided to meet together for lunch
to talk about their work chal-
lenges and potential solutions.
Now those employees have
turned those lunches into a vi-
effort run and led entirely by
people involved in fundraising,
alumni affairs, and parent re-
lations, as well as faculty mem-
bers and administrators. The
so-called Engagement Com-
munity attracts 500 people to
lectures, Webinars, and other
The idea for the group took
shape after Ms. Zakaib kept
leaving campus for conferences, only to find herself bumping
into other University of Virginia
staff members she’d never met
before. Often she found that her
work as managing director of
The group tackles
often call on
consultants to fix.
the university’s office for alumni and parents paralleled what
those co-workers did for academic departments or on-cam-pus foundations.
When a small group of people
who work in alumni relations
decided to start meeting for
lunch, they soon realized they’d
been holed up in different offices
grappling with the same problems. As they grew more comfortable with one another, they
opened up more about their own
failings and frustrations and
began to bounce possible solutions off each other.
Many participants in the early Engagement Community sessions say they gained practical help for problems they were
Elizabeth Piper, director of de-
velopment at the Virginia Foun-
dation for the Humanities, one
of about 25 independent founda-
tions housed at the university,
said event planners in the En-
gagement Community helped
her by offering solid leads on
places to hold her board’s social
and business events.
As word of the group spread,
others wanted to join. Fundraisers and communications staff
members started coming to the
gathering. Even professors and
top administrators began dropping by. The group welcomed
“What I’ve tried to do is em-
phasize what we all share,” Ms.
Zakaib says. Everybody involved
in the Engagement Community,
she says, is in some way “build-
ing relationships, sending out
messages, trying to strength-
en the institution. I really be-
lieve each of us has something
to teach and something to
Once the group started mul-
tiplying in size, the university
decided to give it formal sup-
port and a broader mandate.
Ms. Zakaib’s office provides
staff support, complete with
data analysis to help turn ideas
and hunches into statistically
Today about half of her job
description revolves around the
group’s care and feeding—
literally so, at its lunches. (Her office
has a budget of about $15,000
for the group’s gatherings and
GETTING EMPLOYEES TO TEACH ONE ANOTHER:
TIPS FROM AN EXPERT
Mary Blair Zakaib, facilitator of the University of Virginia
Engagement Community, offers the following advice for orga-
nizations that want to encourage employees to form groups to
learn from each other and work on shared problems.
n Start with a real need, not a top-down mandate.
n Expand the group by word-of-mouth and referrals. That builds
a stronger group than advertising.
n Ask a manager who sees the value of an employee group
to play a leading role and ensure the idea gets needed
n Be inclusive. Invite anyone to join who wants to learn.
n Emphasize shared goals and problems, not differences. (Play
down specific jobs or places in the organization’s hierarchy.)
n Respond to the community’s needs and emerging trends and
opportunities. Solicit feedback and use it to grow.
n Use existing resources, including the organization’s people,
places, and things.
n Recruit volunteers. They will help spread the word and
shoulder the work.
n Learn by doing. Report on the results.
n To minimize risk, take small steps. Place bets you can afford
n Restate the employee group’s mission and goals at every
opportunity. Use plain, memorable language.
n Maintain informal status as long as possible. It helps the
group gain experience, learn from its mistakes, and keep
Still, she resists calling it a
formal program of the university.
She says a big part of the
group’s charm and its success
lie in its informal nature. It
sprouted from what employees
felt they needed, not what their
bosses told them they should be
“We didn’t have a mandate to
create a new continuing-ed program for employees, with a huge
rollout plan,” she says. “I’m not
in a training group. I’m not in
HR. I’m just someone trying to
tap into all the knowledge and
resources out there.”
While the Engagement Community holds formal training
programs, there is an understanding that anyone can contact her or her office to discuss
problems, so anyone around the
campus can float an idea or a
question. Ms. Zakaib enlists
William Maisannes, whom she
calls the chief “data wrangler”
for the group, to crunch the
numbers. For instance, she put
him to work recently after realizing many students’ parents
weren’t opening e-mails from
the institution. Parents wrongly
thought the messages were directed solely at their children.
The engagement group experimented by sending e-mails
with different subjects to different parents: Some said simply,
“Join us for ...” and others said,
“UVa Parents: Join us for ...”.
When the word “parents” was
in the subject line, 46 percent
opened the messages.
That’s the kind of practical
insight people in schools and
foundations across the campus
can take advantage of, says Mr.
Maisannes. But without the
Engagement Community, they
might not have a way to tap into
research about what works.
Now the Engagement Community has created a committee
to craft snapshots of each school
at UVa so it will be easier to see
which ones are doing the best
getting people of different ages
and backgrounds to donate,
volunteer, or otherwise help
the institution. As each snapshot is finished, the committee
shares it with the others. Such
information can be invaluable
for fundraisers, says Mr. Maisannes. (Nearly 140 Engagement Communities members
are fundraisers, more than any
other job title.)
Fundraisers get judged by
how much they bring in and
don’t have time to try untested
methods. Mr. Maisannes says
that he and Ms. Zakaib offer a
An Adaptable Model
The Engagement Community
idea can be adapted in small or
large nonprofit organizations,
says Ms. Zakaib. Given its organic, grass-roots quality, she
says, it can be as small and simple or as large and complex as