It's been very interesting talking with university admissions offices around the country about their student ambassador incentive strategies. Some swear that money is better, and others think volunteer pride can't be beat. Is one really better than the other?
Most of the programs we talk with that have paid programs have a specific goal in mind. They use words like "accountability" and "predictability" and say things like, "it's easier for us to make requests of them." These programs typically have a smaller, more targeted group of students that help with trackable admissions goals. Students might answer phone calls during a specific window of time and do so from inside the admissions office. They might travel with counselors to high schools to speak with prospective students and sometimes they have direct access to the school's CRM where they can input information they've collected.
The managers of these paid student ambassadors tend to see them more as workers. They like that they can count on them for a specific number of hours each week and that they don't have to worry much about incentivizing them beyond their paycheck. The school is paying them, so they should do the work.
When we find schools who switch from a volunteer to paid model, we love to ask why. The most common answer? Because they wanted a more focused approach, which can often mean fewer ambassadors, but clear goals and often more business-like tasks.
Volunteer ambassador programs are a different animal. Student ambassador managers use words like "emotion," "passion," and "pride" when they talk about their teams. Student ambassadors are often self-governed with ambassadors choosing their own leaders and getting involved in many different types of projects around campus. We often hear admissions officers say that they need to run ideas by their student ambassador boards first.
The managers here have a different strategy in mind. Theirs is more about fueling student interest and success with authentic stories and energy. There is less oversight and more self-empowerment. Incentives focus more on the prestige of the ambassador roll and professional experience. Ambassador programs like this can often grow into the hundreds.
The programs who have switched from paid to volunteer tell us that they wanted "broader" programs that were more "robust" and able to handle a diverse set of needs. They also talk about how these volunteer programs make themselves feel more like they are giving students life-changing opportunities, which is a very powerful thing.
Which Is Best?
While it might not be black and white, perhaps the best solution is the hybrid model that we've seen at a number of schools where specific tasks that are more work-related are done by paid students, while other brand-building student success activities are conducted by volunteers.
What really seems to matter, just like in any organization, is what the leadership is most comfortable with. A pro-pay ambassador manager might have a hard time in a pro-volunteer environment and vice versa.
For what it's worth, to us it seems volunteer programs have few drawbacks and don't bog down the budget. Harnessing the natural passion and drive of students is a tremendously powerful thing and when it's done correctly, everyone wins. The school's budget isn't touched, the ambassador manager is giving students an opportunity, the student ambassadors feel ownership of their experience at the school, and the prospective student gets authentic conversation. We like the idea of volunteer programs at every school, and then those who can afford it, adding paid teams where they strategically fit. The student engagement world is big enough for both.