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Has your OLLI made efforts to diversify its membership?

Posted on February 16th, 2011 by Anne Cardale, OLLI National Resource Center

Millicent Lynch, OLLI at Carnegie Mellon University, Asks OLLI:

What actions have you taken to successfully broaden and make your membership more inclusive and representative of the community? What obstacles have you faced? I would like to learn about any efforts made to diversify your OLLI membership.

5 Responses to “Has your OLLI made efforts to diversify its membership?”


  1. The biggest challenge for us in diversifying is the clustering of various groups. The area surrounding the university where we have access to instructors is largely made up one one dominant group. We’ve thought about opening sattelite sites to reach other demographics but we don’t have the resources to do that and we think we’d face challenges getting instructors to go to remote locations. Here is a link to a census map that may be useful to you in locating the groups you seek to attract: http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer?ref=us


  2. Millicent -

    This is one of those issues that is sensitive and challenging. In our case at Brandeis, we have taken action but not enough. It reminds me of the question at a meditation class — Is there anyone in this room who meditates enough?

    We have not had success. In our earliest years, we brought materials to churches with different populations, ethnicities, denominations etc. It didn’t help.

    Integral to Brandeis’s identity is “Jewish” although with years of work the University is around 50/50 - Jews and non Jews. Not so for our OLLI. My estimation is about 15% non-Jewish. Not proud of this - just a fact. We haven’t done anything systematic for a while - we talk about it periodically but haven’t acted. Thanks for raising this important issue, for us, again. (We could also use a few Republicans….)


  3. I was on a “curriculum” panel at the last OLLI conference and it was interesting how the discussion came around to this very topic, actually in just about every breakout session I attended. What I gleaned: almost every OLLI faces the same challenge. OLLI@Pacific is located in Stockton, CA - literally one of the most diverse cities in the country. And yes, the fact is that the majority of our membership is caucasian, educated, middle to upper middle class. We as well send brochures to a large number of local churches, doctor’s offices, all the different chambers (Hispanic, Asian) with not much result. I’m afraid I can’t recall whom I was having this conversation with, but basically they said, “Ya’ know, if this is the make up of your group, then that is who you are to serve.” That could very well be, but it doesn’t hurt to try & broaden the make up. Always looking for ideas.


  4. After several years of sustained effort, we are starting to see some success in regard to diversifying our membership. As our colleagues who posted previously indicate, this is a complex issue.

    Our current thinking here at the moment is that integral to the success of such a prolonged undertaking are two issues: having the basics down, and finding champions.

    At OLLI-USF, we first had to get past the basic sustainability — was our OLLI functioning well, was it stable both financially and operationally? Did we have the right leaders in place? We hold annual goal-setting retreats for our leaders, and “diversity issues” surfaced EVERY year. For most years, diversity didn’t make the top five — we had other, more fundamental concerns to address. Once we had those basics addressed to our satisfaction, we were able to turn our attention to outreach to the specific communities we wanted to work with first. Here in Tampa, that would be the African-American and Hispanic communities, which each represent at least 15% of the makeup of the area we serve.

    Secondly, (and in retrospect), we identified and grew both internal and external champions. We had one influential member who beat the drum for us for several years and who ultimately took the lead in getting this effort organized. The smartest thing he did (and he tried many things!) was to link up with the university’s liaisons to those very communities. Those folks became sold on what we were doing and used their influence to help us gain a foothold into those communities. As a result, we found and grew our external champions: we are working with a group of Hispanic professional women who have championed our cause (and joined our OLLI!) AND have several powerhouse black members who are eagerly using their contacts and influence on our behalf.

    Upon analysis, these seem to be key factors that have helped and heartened us.

    We aren’t “there” yet. I’ve collapsed perhaps three years of work into two paragraphs, and I didn’t even address the controversies involved with such a project! We need and want to diversify our faculty as well as our membership; but we’re moving in the right direction, and hope to continue to make inroads towards our goal of a more representative OLLI-USF.


  5. We have done some good work to date. However, Ara’s presentation at the national meeting has led us to build on our success by creating a Leadership Council level “Inclusivity Commission” that will be headed by a new Leadership Council member. That initiative will be her entire portfolio for her 3 year terms in office. That person is a retired city planner who has a phenomenal grasp of an extremely large metropolitan area. Her commission is composed of leaders in the communities we endeavor to attract. Some good work has been done already but I think we’ll see even greater success at the end of year 3. I bet we’ll need to continue the commission for at least another 3 year term but we’ll have a level of traction and momentum that will lead to the institutionalization of diversity.

    I will be connecting with the diversity commission inside the university’s adminstration to align our community-based efforts with their student and faculty-based efforts.

    There were several easy things we have done over the past year that have paid off well and continue to yield results. The efforts cited below yielded a good proportion of younger members, members from a broader range of socio-economic backgrounds and members from underserved cultural backgrounds.

    * We asked for and received from the Alumni office a list of all graduates. I sorted by the list by age. From that list I targeted zip codes close to our campuses and zip codes in underserved areas of the city.

    * In the Fall of 2010, we bought an inexpensive but rather large list for $200. We targeted underserved zip codes close to our campuses. When I analyzed our results, I found we had a 25% return on the list! In direct market circles, 3% is a great success.

    * We have begun to consciously diversify our Leadership Council. Because we are entirely volunteer inspired, volunteer centered and volunteer led, we know that leadership needs to reflect our current and future constituents.

    * Our speakers bureau has secured engagements at venues that serve or are composed of populations more diverse than in the past as well as venues in targeted zip codes. For geographic diversity we connected with the AARP chapters and senior centers in our service area, connected with librarians at branches (met to tell them about the programs and to leave anywhere from 10 to 50 brochures) and let them know of the campus(es) closest to their constituents.

    In the short term, I think we need to continue to diversify our curriculum and curriculum delivery methods so they are more reflective of the populations we wish to attract.

    Challenges - I am sure there will be many and hope that we can use the national and regional meetings to really dig into this issue.

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