East Carolina University had a fall 2019 enrollment of over 28,000 with 21,700 of those considered on-campus full-time students. During the following three years, overall enrollment stayed strong, but those taking on-campus classes declined by 3,200. The financial impact for a fee-driven department was astronomical with a 14% decline — $800,000 — in annual fee collections. A redistribution of staff responsibilities, coupled with decreases in programming and staff attrition, allowed for a balanced budget. Fortuitously for the department, a fee increase was approved for FY24, and a new, assessment-focused plan was needed to guide the allocation process. In January, the department embarked on a large-scale assessment project focused on a SWOT analysis with 300 participants for stakeholder input.
What is a SWOT?
As many of us remember from our introductory business courses, companies often embark on a SWOT — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats — analysis to determine their status in a current market.
Strengths and weaknesses are typically focused on items internal of the company as they are self-controlled. Opportunities and Threats tend to focus on external factors including areas of growth and detriments to success.
To complete this process, employees, customers and constituents are engaged in focus-group style dialogue via in-person or digital means and can also be offered an online survey in lieu of face-to-face discussion. The end goal of the practice is to determine where a company already succeeds, where it can improve or reduce emphasis, how it can enter a new market, and lastly, how it will address competition.
Campus Recreation and Wellness started the spring of 2023 SWOT analysis project by engaging full-time and paraprofessional staff in a two-hour session. Staff were asked to look at the department from the “thousand-foot level” and provide an honest but professional critique of current operations.
During a semi-annual student-staff training, over 200-plus student employees were engaged to provide an analysis of their current work area in one-hour sessions. Additionally, the department requested input from various campus groups including the CRW Advisory Council, Resident Hall Association, club sports leaders and participants from adventure, fitness, intramural sports and faculty/staff membership. All sessions were held in-person, utilizing a push/pull method of group facilitation, allowing for question and answer as well as clarification on important issues.
Embarking on a process of this magnitude is a true time investment but one that produces a significant buy-in from campus stakeholders. The “you asked, we listened” marketing technique is an excellent tool for building customer and employee loyalty. Engaging full-time staff in your department is easy, but the validation provided by external constituents helps to substantiate future strategic plans. Results from the data collection process produce valuable themes guiding impactful changes to programs and services. As administrators are asked to justify significant changes, the ease of referring to participant feedback quells any concerns over subjective decisions. A prime example is deciding to shorten intramural sports seasons as a cost-saving measure. Years of surveys and discussions showed students wanted activities with shorter time commitments. Five total weeks of play for a major sport versus the previous seven resulted in $25,000 of annual savings.
The intended outcome of this process is a well-informed and data-driven three or five-year strategic plan for the department. Focusing a plan on stakeholder input allows the department to shape its future with investment from those we serve. Major themes from our 10 focus-group sessions included the expansion of facility hours, increased focus on employee support, faculty/staff access, program-specific marketing and offering programming discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we move into the summer months and begin our planning processes for 2024 and beyond, we will utilize major themes to guide financial decisions, programmatic calendars, service offerings, communication strategies and staffing models. This data collection process, although arduous, allows informed decision-making that will undoubtedly place our department on the right path for the coming years.
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