This is a Required Reading


It’s an intense word.
It’s not my favourite word.
It’s an obstacle to overcome or a hoop to jump through.
The word mandatory usually makes me not want to do it, but I will do it. I’ll get it over with if I have to.

After a few months of coordinating a mandatory program for student-athletes (i.e., they have to participate if they want to play next year) I have faced a lot of challenges and learned a lot of things I never thought I’d have to know. Here are a few things that help. They sound simple, but I’m still just beginning to learn how to put them into practice.

  1. You have to be attached to something desireable; A carrot. Or you must be the antidote to something undesirable; A stick. Either way, you need some kind of external motivator, otherwise you’re not actually mandatory.  You’re really going to need buy-in from the people who hold the carrot or the stick or else you’re still not actually mandatory.
  2. You have to be really good at communication. If news of your voluntary program is not widespread, you get low utilization rates. If news of your mandatory program is not widespread, there are going to be a lot of people unfairly missing out on the carrot or getting the stick.
    Again, buy-in helps spread the word.
  3. You have to offer many, many, widely-scheduled opportunities for students to engage with the programming. This is a University – classes come first. It would be unethical to make a program mandatory without offering all students adequate opportunities to participate.
    By the way, in case it’s been a while since you graduated – their schedules are bananas! Or at least that’s what they tell me…
  4. Tell them why the program is mandatory and how they will benefit. Some students (and staff!) may be frustrated with the mandatory nature of your program – especially if this is a new thing. Don’t be offended.  They’re just prioritizing their time. Acknowledge their frustrations, validate their concerns and explain why your program is worth their time. This can go a very long way toward establishing buy-in. There is a reason why the decision-makers came together and decided to make your program mandatory. It just might be difficult for the students you serve to see how it benefits them. Enlighten them!
  5. Be open to feedback. In fact, please solicit feedback directly from the students and staff who are affected by your program. You will probably learn something about how to better implement your program.  At the very least, it will be another opportunity to tell them why your program exists.  At best, when they see you responding to their concerns and trying to do it better, they will be more invested and engaged in your program.

There is one context where the mandatory nature of a program actually makes me more intrinsically motivated to participate: The Mandatory Long-Form Census.
If I’m completing a mandatory census form, everyone else is too. The data will be rich and meaningful and will help influence decisions and policies that will benefit us all.
If I’m completing a voluntary census form, we’re really just learning about people like me. That’s neither rich, nor meaningful, and really shouldn’t influence much. I’ll probably still fill it out even though it’s kind of a waste of my time because I’m keen like that.  But, the people who really need to be better represented in the data are also the people who are least likely to fill it out if it’s voluntary.

Be like the Mandatory Long-Form Census –
Be meaningful and reach everyone.
Be more meaningful by reaching everyone.
Simple, right?