Since joining Switchboard last year, I’ve seen the reaffirmation of three critical principles that drive successful alumni engagement. These golden rules apply to every type of alumni community—schools and universities, other non-profits, and corporate alumni networks alike. I know this from having worked in alumni relations professionally since 1989, blogged about the profession for 11 years, and consulted on it for about 50 organizations in a dozen countries.
Through it all, these basic tenets have held true.
They’re the kind of things that sound obvious when you hear them. Mentioning these guidelines generates vigorous and sincere agreement from alumni professionals, but scanning the profession, I see that many organizations ignore them in practice.
Embrace the goals described below, and you’ll measurably increase effective alumni engagement in 2018:
- Listen to stakeholders, and shape engagement accordingly
Many alumni teams still see themselves as community Town Criers. They broadcast “one-to-many” messages in a way that worked before the web made everyone a potential publisher.
Don’t just broadcast one-way news. Digital communication is an entirely two-way street. By listening to your audience you will
- be seen as a community partner, not a top-down controller;
- learn what people care about and the problems they are trying to solve; and
- find a rich source of expertise, influence, and support for institutional initiatives that alumni find relevant to their own lives.
Stony Brook University’s approach to alumni relations is a prime example of this strategy. Their alumni relations team gets more done by asking what people need first and acting second, both with other offices on campus and alumni themselves.
- Support alumni who self-organize
Until very recently, we labeled alumni and student interaction as “official” or “unofficial.” The implication? If the institution didn’t initiate, sponsor, promote and host the activity, it didn’t count.
But the mindset is shifting, and yesterday’s fretful “Not invented here!” is giving way to shouts of “Look! A genuine community!” These grassroots communities are easier than ever for alumni to build, thanks in large part to technologies that connect people wherever they are.
Alumni and students who self-organize deserve
- recognition for their loyalty;
- credit for trying to solve their own problems; and
- resources to enhance their efforts.
We wrote about about this approach to engagement on the Switchboard blog back in August.
- Balance broader engagement with deeper engagement
Metrics have evolved. We have moved beyond merely “reaching as many alumni as possible.” Why? Because with shrinking staff time and budgets, plus growing alumni populations, reaching more people means engaging them less deeply.
Alumni communities benefit when already-engaged members are engaged even more deeply through follow up communication, volunteer opportunities and other signals that recognize their commitment to the cause.
When you balance deeper engagement with wider engagement, you
- increase the quality of the overall alumni experience;
- acknowledge those who have already raised their hands to say, “I’m in!”; and
- avoid cajoling or begging marginally engaged alumni to deepen their commitment.
Opportunities for deeper engagement will bring out those who truly want to participate. Oakland University’s Leadership OU program, for example, offers motivated students deeper involvement in their community and provides engaged alumni an opportunity to give back to their alma mater.
Adding even one more bullet point to your goals for 2018 might be a tall order, but more likely than not, these three points are already present in your list.
Your job now is to be sure you act on them in your work with alumni and student communities.