Navigating turnover in student groups

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Grassroots student groups face a high risk of dissolving, which creates challenges in momentum building. This is the result of an inability to turnover the group's resources and knowledge to the next generation of student organizers, as many lack a permanence of structure. More specifically, student groups struggle with the changes outlined by their school's semesters and length of studies. Frequent turnover provides campus organizers with a unique opportunity to map the natural 3-4 year cycle of a student onto a timeline[1]. These challenges can be avoided, and opportunities used, by strategizing before turnover happens.

We outline some of these strategies in the following guide, developed using existing organizer databases and resources by movement thinkers, and direct insight following a learning circle with student organizers on navigating turnover. This guide includes; challenges faced by student organizers, running effective student groups, strategies to support and guide new members and building institutional memory, plus further insight on student organizing best practices, organizing in a pandemic, wellbeing and motivation, and recruitment and retention strategies.

Highlighted text is knowledge shared during our Learning Circle on this topic.

Types of Student Groups

  The campus ecosystem is made up of four main types of student groups. 

Student Associations

Student Associations operate at the campus, faculty, and department level; and act as the democratic voice of students in their membership. These unions often have permanent funding which allows them to sponsor events, make donations, and sometimes offer paid roles, both as elected executives and hired staff. 

  • Elected executive positions (ex. SECMV : unpaid roles, ASFA: paid roles)
  • Hired work-study program of Concordia (ex: Campaigns Researcher, CSU)

Fee-levy Groups

Other campus groups can get funding by gaining the support of the student body. Like Student Associations, these groups have recurring funds. Unlike student associations, they can focus on specific topics or needs, such as campus food security, grants for community projects, etc. 

Campus Clubs and Committees Campus Clubs and Committees are funded by either the student association or the university. Generally, clubs and committees are small groups of volunteers or participants who sign-up, are appointed, or apply to participate. They can get their funding through funds allocated each semester by student associations to various projects such as clubs and committees, but also grassroots student groups  
Grassroots Student Groups Grassroots Student Groups or Direct Action groups are informal collectives of students organizing within a given campus or a collection of campuses. While some student groups have a long history, many are emergent and exist to give a space for students to organize around a popular issue. These groups apply for funding on a needs basis. 

Challenges faced

Lived experiences were shared by learning circle participants. They portray some consequences of not being ready for student turnover.

  • Divestment organizers were concerned about groups who won and didn’t know where to go from there
  • Groups have been struggling to navigate online organizing
  • There are ongoing concerns related to general turnover and capacity when students graduate (particularly those who have been members of a group for a while)
  • A lack of support from former members leads to more energy and time needed to restart after a high rate of turnover.
  • Anger towards the school administration leads to forgetting about turnover periods, thus the workload for the next semester is larger.

Running effective student groups

Momentum's Structure Report suggests 5 key elements allow for groups to organize effectively, acting as an outline of what we should be striving for when developing student groups that navigate turnover:

1. The capacity to coordinate teams

2. The capacity to facilitate group deliberation and decision making processes

3. The ability to distribute work into roles on teams

4. The ability to set up systems and design programs to recruit people from your target constituencies

5. The ability to train and coach other leaders

Ways to navigate turnover

Support and Guide New Members: Training and Upskilling

HUB co-director Jacqueline Tam elaborated on 'the buddy system'

Many groups navigate turnover by pairing new members with someone who has more experience. This strategy encourages relationship building and offers a point of contact for new members to go to with their questions. Your group can do this in a number of ways:

  • Make being a ‘buddy’ to new members a specific role in your group;
  • Allow new members to choose their buddy;
  • Partner new members with existing members based on their area of interest. For example, if a new member is interested in communications pair them with the communications bottom-liner.  

It’s important that those assigned to be buddies have a strong sense of the group's identity and activities, their role is to make themselves replaceable by training new members and activating potential leaders. 

Older members can shadow new members. They can assist until the person feels comfortable doing the task at hand alone with minimal support from the older member. 

HUB Project advisor Amara Possian on training/skilling up

In order to have a sustainable student group, veteran members need to take on the responsibility of building leadership and supporting people to learn and grow. If you are building leadership and supporting people to learn/grow at every step, then this situation is much easier to navigate. Churches are really good at this. I've read a couple of books about how they grow and this approach to training an apprentice comes from a book called Exponential:

  • I do. You watch. We talk.
  • I do. You help. We talk.
  • You do. I help. We talk.
  • You do. I watch. We talk.
  • You do. Someone else watches.

Veteran members need to invite new people to do tasks that were taken care of by older members (E.g. speak to the media). 

Build Institutional Memory

Having a strong base of institutional memory ensures the sustainability of your group by orienting new members when they join. A lack of institutional memory can lead to role confusion, lost vision, and copycat actions. Thus, building institutional memory as part of your strategic organizing practices helps new members thrive.

Create a Blueprint

Create a document that includes all the information that someone entering a new role would need to be successful.

Be sure to include:

  • Essential responsibilities
  • Best practices and general tips
  • Passwords
  • Contacts (internal and external ; include roles and ressources linked to each contact)
  • Brief how-to explainers (tasks, school boards, permission to publish on school boards, creating pamphlets, printing posters)
  • For Divest Campaigns : board of directors document with pictures/names/information to familiarize with the targets
Have Strong Onboarding and Outboarding Processes

Onboarding should include: 

  • An overview of the group's mission, values, and structure
  • Introductions to key group members
  • Opportunities for questions
  • A concrete action of next step for prospective members (E.g. ask them to join an action, invite them to the next meeting, or plan a social activity)

Outboarding should include: 

  • Requesting feedback from outgoing members on ways to improve the group (E.g. a google form, a meeting)

Navigating turnover is strongly linked to other subjects upon which Learning Circle participants shared knowledge such as...

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