While interviewing to lead the alumni relations team at Fordham University, I learned that Fordham’s president, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., was eager to reconstitute a university-wide alumni association. The former version ceased to exist sometime in the late ’90s or the early 2000s. Depending on whom you spoke with, this previous incarnation—which existed along with several school-based groups—faced various challenges, including setting overall priorities and dealing with financial and legal matters. Simply put, these organizations were not always operating in the best interests of the broader alumni population (of more than 175,000) or of Fordham University. So, as I accepted the role at Fordham, I was excited about the prospect of envisioning and creating a new alumni association.
As I immersed myself in my new job, I carved out the time to learn about the history, people, culture, and nuances of this rich and complex university. And I recognized that I didn’t have to start from scratch—others had recently taken a similar path. For inspiration, I spent time with colleagues from Boston College and the University of Southern California, and I also drew upon my own professional experience at Columbia University.
Three years in, armed with a growing fluency in all things Fordham and a good sense of a way forward, I was missing only one piece—objective and statistically valid data to either support or contradict what I had learned anecdotally. What do alumni think of Fordham? How was their student experience? Their alumni experience? What are we doing well? How can we better serve them, engage them, and bring them closer to the university? For this input, we commissioned PEG Ltd. to administer their Alumni Attitude Study. The results painted a detailed and accurate picture of what Fordham looked and felt like for our alumni.
[We had to articulate clearly why Fordham wanted to create a new alumni association]
Next came crafting the plan. And that had to start with clearly articulating why Fordham wanted to create a new alumni association. And, of course, setting the goals the new group would seek to accomplish. The first part was pretty straightforward: For almost two decades, there had been no formal platform for alumni to express their ideas, opinions, and views, and there had been no volunteer structure to foster and encourage greater alumni involvement with the life of the University. That had to change. As to working goals, we prioritized strengthening institutional identity and pride (a stronger Fordham benefits everyone), promoting alumni and cross-school connections (which would create a richer and more interdependent experience for all), and leveraging resources for the common good of our alumni and nine schools (which would help us become more strategic and efficient in our engagement efforts).
We named our emergent organization the Fordham University Alumni Association (FUAA), an inclusive, dues-free group serving all Fordham alumni worldwide. And drawing upon the work of peer institutions, we determined that the association’s voice to the University would be a 24-person alumni advisory board that would meet several times a year and assist us in informing, shaping, and guiding alumni engagement. There was no magical algorithm that helped us choose 24 as the number of representatives; we just thought it was the right size for an inclusive and diverse advisory board.
How did we compile our initial list of candidates? We made sure to consider all of Fordham’s schools and key constituent groups (such as trustees, athletics, and regional chapters). We looked for alumni with demonstrated and sustained volunteer involvement, a positive outlook, a creative and visionary mindset, and a temperament to engage in board work. We expect board members to attend meetings regularly, serve on task forces, be visible at events, assist with recruitment of new board members, and—as circumstances allow—support Fordham financially. To this end, we engaged in a little reverse engineering—most of those selected for the board were already donors at some level.
[Fordham now has 24 additional, knowledgeable ambassadors to tell the university's story]
We launched the FUAA in January of 2017 as the first university-wide association in more than 15 years. To date, the FUAA Advisory Board has convened three times. I am thoroughly impressed by the group’s thoughtfulness, energy, and commitment to fellow alumni and to Fordham. More specifically, the board already has three task forces—one focused on how alumni can help increase Fordham’s reputation around the world, another looking at ways the University can serve graduates' lifelong learning needs, and a third ensuring that our alumni relations efforts align with our graduates’ desires and expectations. But beyond the work of these task forces, Fordham University now has 24 additional, knowledgeable ambassadors to tell the Fordham story to alumni, prospective students, and the public.
I am not the only one impressed by the new Fordham University Alumni Association. Reception and feedback both on campus and in the alumni community has been uniformly positive. In fact, a “Meet the Board” reception for January of 2018 reached capacity with more than 300 RSVPs in just a few hours—making it one of our biggest alumni events of the year. I look forward to continuing to work with this group on initiatives that resonate with alumni and that raise Fordham’s profile.
Contact Michael directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.