Get Involved in a Volunteer Experience (GIVE) on the Internet

Patricio Navia <>
University of Illinois at Chicago


GIVE on Line ( provides a bridge for students who want to volunteer but do not know how to go about it. In addition, not-for-profit organizations who need volunteers but do not have the resources to recruit them will find Give on Line invaluable. GIVE on Line provides that link and securely connects volunteers with organizations that need them.


The UIC environment

The University of Illinois at Chicago is a large, public urban institution of Higher Education in Illinois. Founded in 1965 as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, UIC adopted its current name when UICC and the Health Sciences Campus were consolidated in 1986. Since then, UIC has emerged as one of the leading institutions of higher education in the city of Chicago and the country. UIC's main challenge is to reconcile academic excellence with its urban mission. The decay of American urban areas is a serious problem, and UIC has accepted the challenge to help provide solutions.

As a Research I institution, located in Chicago's downtown and faced with increasing financial challenges resulting from lower state funding, UIC must develop innovative approaches to serve its urban mission and continue to excel academically. Highly restrictive resources call for creative solutions in all areas, for reinventing existing programs, and for adopting new technology to make programs more efficient and to reduce costs.

The Division of Student Affairs, and in particular the Department of Student Development Services, is well aware of the aforementioned challenges. Moreover, Student Development also faces the need to incorporate elements of student development using mechanisms that will guarantee that the experiences in which students engage during college will provide valuable lessons for their education. Personal contact and direct supervision, then, is such a priority that automation should not come to replace direct contact with the student. Doing more with less is the challenge. Using new technology is, necessarily, a path that must be followed. However, the objective must remain clear. The personal touch that Student Affairs has wholeheartedly defended over the years must not be lost in the process.

The challenges

The Get Involved in a Volunteer Experience (GIVE) Program at UIC was developed to address key challenges faced by UIC. It serves as a bridge between community organizations that need volunteers and UIC Students who want to volunteer their services. The framework of challenges within which GIVE was developed includes initiatives from the University's administration, from goals and objectives of the Division of Student Affairs, and from the needs and demands of the diverse population of UIC students.

Student diversity

One of UIC's leading strengths and potential sources of conflict is its diversity. In fall 1996, UIC enrolled 24,583 students. Of those students, 16,190 were undergraduates, 6,070 were graduate students, 2,323 were in professional schools, and the rest were non-degree-seeking students. As for age, 48.2% of the student population was 22 or under. UIC is a growing ethnically diverse school, and 50% of the total student population in fall 1996 were Caucasians, 10% African American, 13% Latino, and 17% Asian American. Only 6% of UIC's population in fall 1996 held student visas, although many more foreign-born students were enrolled as permanent residents and were included mostly in the Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian groups.

In fall 1996, 53% of the entering freshmen class were members of minority groups (18% Latino, 24% Asian, and 11% African American). Immigrants and children of immigrants from a wide array of countries have made UIC their educational gateway to success. However, UIC is also home to students whose families have lived in Illinois for generations. An increasing number of UIC students come from the suburbs of Chicago and downstate Illinois. For many students, UIC is the first setting in their lives when they need to interact with other students from radically different social, economic, religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

A good proportion of UIC students come from the Chicago Public School System. In fall 1996, 30% of the entering freshmen population came from Chicago Public Schools, and 13% came from other schools located within the Chicago city limits. A significant number of these students speak a language other than English at home and many practice Muslim, Hindu, and other non-Judeo-Christian religions. Thus, when we speak of diversity at UIC, we really mean diversity at all levels.

Within this context, the student population at UIC is diverse and differently prepared to face challenges. Religious, cultural, ethnic, and political differences clash in the UIC campus and while UIC has been conflict-free for many years, it does take innovative initiatives to help students learn to live and cooperate within such an environment.

Moreover, creative programs need to be developed to foster interaction among students. Student Development Services has taken a key role in developing such programs. Aside from GIVE, several leadership training programs, leadership weekends, a university ambassadors' program, and different forms of in-campus college dialogue have been implemented.

GIVE aims to provide students with opportunities to serve both in their own neighborhoods and in areas of the cities unknown to them. GIVE helps serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, it helps students develop their own identity as they relate to other people who face problems similar to their own. For instance, a young Hindu or Hispanic female student who has the opportunity to work in a battered women's shelter will find tools to address those issues within her community and family. Young Caucasian or African American male students working with homeless organizations or gang prevention groups will be better prepared to cope with the growing gang problem, be it in the city or the suburbs.

On the other hand, GIVE provides students the opportunity to put their identity development in perspective. By working in organizations that serve people of other ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, or religious backgrounds, students learn to place their own beliefs and values in perspective. Thus, they broaden their minds and better prepare to live in a world increasingly diverse.

Neighborhoods and great cities

UIC is one of the three sister universities that compose the University of Illinois. UIC's former chancellor, Dr. James Stukel, was appointed president of the University of Illinois in 1995. Dr. Stukel, first as the UIC chancellor and then as the president of the University of Illinois, developed a program called Great Cities, aimed at developing and fostering projects that would further advance UIC's urban mission. Strong partnerships with community organizations were fostered and encouraged. As a vital part of the city of Chicago, UIC could not achieve excellence without incorporating the communities that surrounded the University into its mission.

UIC is located just southwest of Chicago's downtown area. UIC has historically had to face a myriad of challenges to become a good neighbor. The campus, built in 1965, was placed in a historically Italian-American neighborhood that, at the time, was the heart of a growing Latino neighborhood. Tensions with the community arose even before a single student had enrolled at UIC. Building trust with the community has obviously been a difficult process, often undermined by the University's constant need to expand and grow in its physical structure. Moreover, the gentrification process associated with the formation of a university-related neighborhood around the campus has also raised concerns among our immediate neighbors.

North of UIC lies Greektown, a historically Greek-American neighborhood. West of the University is a large underdeveloped African-American neighborhood. High unemployment rates, high school dropout rates, welfare dependency, and health care are some of the challenges UIC has helped to address through the Great Cities Program in these areas. South of the University, Pilsen, a Mexican-American neighborhood, offers unique challenges as well. Immigration issues, health care, education, and crime are also issues UIC has helped address through Great Cities. Southeast of the University, is a Chinese-American neighborhood posing unique problems and challenges.

Yet, because UIC understands that it constitutes a part of the larger Chicago metropolitan area, it has reached out to suburbs and other neighborhoods to build partnerships through the Great Cities Program. Many of UIC students come from the suburbs of Chicago and a good number come from other neighborhoods within the city. UIC's commitment to the Great Cities program, while heavily focusing on the neighborhoods in the vicinity, has expanded to the larger metropolitan area.

The concept of Great Cities presupposes a close, real coordinated effort with community organizations. The University does not attempt to solve problems unilaterally. Instead, through partnerships with already established community organizations, UIC provides technical, human, and financial support to those agencies so that they, in turn, can take a leadership role in solving the problems of their communities. Community involvement, and community leadership are, then, key elements in the success of Great Cities. Support to existing organizations is a necessary condition and GIVE has helped achieve that goal.

For that reason, GIVE aggressively contacts community agencies and invites them to participate in the program. They are asked to provide basic information on the specific tasks the volunteers will perform as well as some other basic information on the nature and history of the agencies. GIVE, then, makes sure that the request for volunteers is valid and that the volunteers will perform tasks that will allow them to be helpful and to obtain a positive experience for their own lives.

The paperless university

President Stukel has called on the University of Illinois to reduce use of paper and use technology to replace paperwork. In light of this, several programs have been developed to encourage the use of state-of-the-art technology in classrooms, and other programs have been created to automatize administrative processes. Internet-based applications and electronic mail communications have been both fostered and encouraged.

In the past, GIVE primarily used campus newspaper advertisements, flyers, and brochures to reach out to students. Because UIC is a mostly commuter campus, mailing costs and heavy use of printed materials were necessary to disseminate information about the program. Limited resources and a constrained budget often prevented an effective dissemination of information about GIVE to all UIC students. Word of mouth and direct contact with student organizations served as the most effective recruiting tools for volunteers.

Once students learn about the program and express interest in serving as volunteers, students are asked to fill out and mail back a brochure with their information and volunteer interests. Once the brochure has reached GIVE, a GIVE official, usually a student of social work or education, makes contact with the student and sets up an interview to discuss volunteer opportunities. Often a couple of letters are needed to finalize the interview and the volunteer placement.

We took on president Stukel's challenge and developed a paperless process for GIVE. While doing that, we also better addressed the issues of reaching out beyond the usual suspects to the larger community and to a larger group of students. The GIVE home page and the GIVE database resulted from this process.

GIVE as a solution

GIVE was developed to provide cost-efficient, innovative, and successful solutions. Originally developed in 1988, GIVE serves as a bridge between community organizations and student volunteers.

Community organizations

In the Community Organization end of the program, GIVE has developed a large database with more than 200 organizations in the larger Chicago metropolitan area that are in need of volunteers. All organizations have been categorized into 11 areas of interest:

  1. Literacy corps (Teach a child or an adult to read; teach English to a nonnative speaker; tutor disadvantaged youth in a variety of subjects)
  2. Hunger and homeless (Serve in a soup kitchen or a shelter for the homeless; participate in organizations working to end hunger and homelessness in our community)
  3. Youth assistance (Become a big brother or sister; coach a youth sport team; help out in a daycare center; be a friend to area youth at risk)
  4. Environment (Join others in working to improve the environment; help to increase awareness of environmental issues affecting the Chicago area and beyond)
  5. Crisis intervention (Work on local and national hotlines providing counseling and support for runaway youth, battered women, rape victims, and others in crisis situations; serve as a counselor or advocate for people in need of financial and emotional assistance)
  6. Health care (Help in community hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, health centers, community health education programs, and other related agencies)
  7. Developmentally disabled (Work with an organization serving mentally or physically disabled adults and children. Become a friend to those with special needs, including the elderly and those who are economically and socially disadvantaged)
  8. Women and teen pregnancy (Help agencies with teen parenting education programs; work at a local chapter of a national women's organization)
  9. Elderly (Work with and on behalf of the elderly, assisting them with their needs and helping them be independent)
  10. Arts and culture (Volunteer at one of many Chicagoland theaters, concert halls, museums, and visual or performing arts organizations; assist cultural organizations in providing a haven for refugees and helping these people adapt to life in a new country)
  11. Government and law (Work with agencies concerned with the criminal justice system; help in local and national elections and campaigns; work for various better government associations)

When new organizations are added to the database, proper steps are taken to ensure the legitimacy of the organization and agencies and the potential risks to students' safety when volunteering for such organization. Regularly, GIVE employees update agency information in the GIVE database. However, due to the scare resources of both GIVE and most community organizations, the database does not necessarily contain the most accurate data. Many organizational contacts leave their agencies, and new persons come in who do not know of GIVE. The learning curve for many of these contacts is slow and often times potential volunteer placements are not made due to lack of communication.

As the GIVE database grew, it became increasingly necessary to develop an intelligent, simple, and effective mechanism for agencies to learn about GIVE, tell us of their needs, and constantly update us on the changes in leadership, focus, and needs. The advent of the Internet explosion provided that avenue.

One of the components of GIVE on Line is a page for community organizations to provide us with essential information about their activities, their contact persons and their volunteer needs. As a simple, straight forward home page, GIVE on Line for Agencies serves new agencies as well as agencies that are already part of our database. In the community agency world, personal communication is essential, and natural mistrust exists between a large urban public university and community organizations. Thus, agencies are invited to provide their information online and wait for a quick follow-up phone call from one of the GIVE professionals. Mainly a first step recruitment effort and an effective method for updating information, GIVE on Line for Agencies allows GIVE to reach out to a community that is becoming increasingly familiar with the Internet.

UIC students

There are many reasons why students want to volunteer. Students may plan to enroll in a professional program at UIC or elsewhere that requires volunteer work. We have been most successful in recruiting those students to the GIVE program, in part because they seek us out. However, there are many other students who, regardless of their future interests, are truly committed to helping affect the lives of others in need. Many of them go directly to agencies that they know of or where their friends volunteer. Many more, however, find themselves unable to link their will to help with an agency that will help them fulfill their will.

Whatever the student's reasons may be, GIVE must be effective in providing the correct placement to those students on the basis of their wants and their particular characteristics. All students who have expressed a desire to volunteer are invited to an interview with a GIVE professional. In the interview, the student receives information about the program and about specific volunteer possibilities. In many cases, students are not exactly sure what they want to do or what volunteering really entails. The interview with the GIVE professional gives them the opportunity to explore some areas further and learn more about volunteerism.

At the same time, the GIVE professional has the opportunity to screen the student and identify potential strengths and weaknesses of the student for particular positions. Because of the distinct backgrounds and upbringings of UIC students, it may not be advisable in some instances to place a student interested in helping a literacy program in an area of the city that is not well known to the student. Some students from the suburbs are not streetwise enough at 18 years of age and sending them to agencies located in areas with high crime rates may not be in the students' best interest. Similarly, in some cases, students who are interested in working with AIDS patients may not be psychologically suited to visit certain health care centers and have contact with terminal patients. Furthermore, some students may not be psychologically suited to work with the elderly or children.

Finally, there is potential danger of having ideologically radical students attempt to enter organizations that they feel are advocating the wrong ideology. For example, a student could attempt to volunteer for an organization that works to prevent teen pregnancy and that advocates use of birth control mechanisms and abortion. Once volunteering for the organization, the student may unveil his or her hidden agenda creating tensions within the organization and, most likely, that will lead to the student being asked to leave the agency. At that point, the good working relation between GIVE and the community organization may be severely hurt. For those reasons, then, the interview between the GIVE professional and the potential student volunteers is critical for the success of the program and should not be replaced by an automatic placement process.

Once the initial interview finishes, the student receives a placement for an interview with the community agency selected by the GIVE professional and the student. A GIVE official contacts the agency and advises them that a student will be calling for an interview (sometimes that whole process is done at the time of the interview). A couple of weeks later, a GIVE professional again contacts the agency and asks them to provide feedback on the performance of the student volunteer. The follow-up with the agency is a crucial component of the program because it allows us to identify which students actually volunteered and which agencies provided better technical and human resource support to the student volunteers. The follow-up process, then, allows us to check both on the agency and the student to see if they lived up to their part of the volunteer agreement.

GIVE enters the Internet era: GIVE on Line

In fall 1995 we developed a home page for the GIVE program. The initial stage of the application included general information about the program, almost identical to what students would find in the GIVE brochure and other GIVE handouts. It also included an online form on which students could submit with their names, their addresses, their telephone numbers, their e-mail addresses, the best available times for an interview, and general information on their prior experience in volunteering. Once received, the online forms would be used to update a student database and to contact students to invite them for an interview where a placement could be made.

GIVE professionals could use the information submitted online by the student to get a head start on finding an attractive volunteer placement for the student. Academic and disciplinary records could also be checked for any restrictions on the students' privileges and responsibilities. The online form also eliminated the extra step to set up an interview, as the students had already indicated their best times and only an e-mail confirmation needed to be sent.

In fall 1996, a new interface was added to GIVE on Line. GIVE on Line for Agencies was developed. The objective was to create a user-friendly interface for agencies to provide us with basic information on their activities and their needs for volunteers. A follow-up phone call and usually a personal interview with the agency representative would seal the agreement between GIVE and the agency. From then on, the agency's needs for volunteers would be included in the GIVE database. Volunteer placements would follow and, thus, the agency would become a part of the GIVE program. GIVE on Line for Agencies also provides an interface for agencies that are already a part of GIVE to update their volunteer information, their contact names, and other information crucial to successfully placing students in volunteer positions.

In winter 1997, specific information on particular volunteer placements was also incorporated into GIVE on Line. Several technical and strategic problems were posed when this feature was incorporated into the system. First, students are not encouraged to contact community agencies directly, without going through the interview with the GIVE professional. The concern is that students would contact many agencies directly without knowing exactly what they were looking for. In most cases, GIVE is the first volunteer experience for the students, and we did not want them to go out to the world of volunteerism without sufficient training. The interview with the GIVE professional helps address those issues.

There were several community agencies that felt they did not want their information to be made public to the whole world. Recent attacks on family panning clinics and other organizations that defend a women's right to choose over the issue of abortion give legitimacy to some agencies' concerns about their privacy and the information they release to the general public. Some agencies wanted volunteers but they wanted us to screen them first. GIVE on Line would need to comply with those requirements if we wanted the agencies to continue working with the program.

We needed, then, to find a suitable way to address both concerns and at the same time, provide more accurate and detailed information to students who wanted to learn more about volunteerism before setting up an interview with a GIVE professional. For each one of the eleven areas of volunteerism, we created a table that provided only agency names and descriptions of volunteer positions. We did not provide information on the agency addresses, phone contacts, names of supervisors, or other information that could be used either to contact the agency without going to GIVE or to learn details about organizations working on sensitive areas.

Thus, community organizations are assured that their information is not being released to the general public, and GIVE prevents students from contacting organizations directly. This is particularly important for them. To be sure, the interview process does its best to psychologically screen out unfit students from being placed with an agency. It also provides basic training and information on volunteerism to students so that each agency will only need to train the volunteers on the specific demands of their positions.

Yet, the arrangement also served the purpose of providing more detailed information on what volunteerism entails. Prospective volunteers can scroll through the list and read the descriptions of the volunteer positions. They will learn how much direct contact they will have with individuals, how much office and paperwork they will be required to perform, how many hours they will be needed and in what type of environment they will be doing their volunteer activities.

The original online volunteer application already asked questions of time commitment, preferred neighborhoods for volunteer activities, preferred times and days, and other general details. The new information on agencies provided the prospective volunteer with more detailed information that could in turn be used to self-select one or more agencies that would best accommodate the needs and wants of the volunteers. If a particular agency were to catch the student's attention, he or she could indicate this on the online form and detailed information about that particular agency would be readily available during the interview.

Challenges ahead for GIVE on Line

For fall 1997, we will have in place a new interface that will allow agencies to send an online evaluation of students who have participated in the GIVE program. In that way, we will know how the students are doing and what potential problems future students would encounter when volunteering for that particular agency. We will also be able to monitor volunteer students without increasing costs and without placing an unnecessary paperwork burden on the community organizations and agencies.

In fall 1997 we plan to heavily market and advertise the GIVE on Line home page. We have not done any advertisement so far and nonetheless we have received more than 20 online applications since fall 1996. We have tested the page, completed updating our agency database, and tested the online forms extensively. We have also devised a mechanism that will directly send the online applications to the electronic mail of GIVE professionals. From there, the applications will be incorporated into the database, and students should be contacted, preferably via e-mail, to confirm the interview appointment selected by them on the online form.

When the students arrive for their appointments, a tentative placement will have been made. However, after the interview--and we are well aware of this--the placement may have changed because of additional information shared between the GIVE professional and the prospective volunteer. Nonetheless, having detailed information about the students' desires and ideas will help us be better prepared for the student's visit. In the past, some students required more than two interviews to be assigned a suitable placement. With the online form, one screening interview should be sufficient, and the student could be volunteering at an agency within a few days.

We are posed, however, with a logistical problem. Because GIVE always had difficulties marketing its program to the UIC community, we only served students in the past. With the GIVE on Line program, we will receive online forms from staff and faculty at UIC and, more importantly, from people who hold no relationship with UIC. GIVE is paid for by student fees. Technically we ought to serve only currently enrolled UIC students. As mentioned above, we do think it is wise to release enough information about agencies that would allow for prospective volunteers to contact the agencies directly. So, if anybody wants to use GIVE on Line they will need to see a GIVE professional. We are still debating how we will deal with this issue when we start promoting GIVE on Line. At this time we are leaning towards opening up the service to anybody who wants to volunteer but we know we will encounter ethical as well as technical issues in the process.

In all, we expect to increase the size of the program and the number of UIC student volunteers without an increase in our budget allocation. We presently have the professional staff to conduct up to 10 interviews per week. With GIVE on Line, and the reduced paperwork that it will bring about, we will be able to place 20 students per week. In our 15-week semester, we could conceivably place a maximum of 300 students. In the 1995-1996 academic year (two semesters) we placed almost 300 students. We expect that with GIVE on Line that number will increase to 450 in the 1997-1998 academic year and to 600 in 1998-1999 with no additional budget allocations for the program. Presently we have more than 240 volunteer opportunities with more than 100 agencies and organizations. We expect to increase that number to 400 placement opportunities and 200 organizations by fall 1998, thanks to the GIVE on Line program.

In the process of developing GIVE on Line, we successfully addressed three main challenges. First, we created a paperless, cost-efficient process that did not require an increase in our budget allocation. Second, we extended our ability to promote the program to all UIC students, and conceivably, to the whole world. Finally, in doing so, we did not take away the personalized treatment that students ought to receive when embarking in such new experiences, nor did we provide sensitive information on agencies to the general public. Distinct challenges require innovative and creative solutions, GIVE on Line makes use of the Internet to reduce costs, expand the program, and provide bridges to a community of disadvantaged groups, fulfilling the university's urban mission.