Ask most alumni relations professionals the secret of success and they will have a common refrain.
They will tell you that best way to create a group of engaged, committed – and generous – alumni is to begin with a group of engaged, committed students.
So, to develop a wildly successful alumni relations effort, aim for a wildly successful student experience. One thing to keep in mind is that they are students for one to six years and alumni for the rest of their lives, yet it is their years on campus (or perhaps online) that form the foundation of their relationship with the school.
Some schools already do this well by integrating alumni into orientation activities, hosting an alumni event early in a students’ campus career, help students in study abroad programs connect with alumni in other countries, connect students and alumni for career mentoring, and working with student clubs. Some schools co-locate alumni relations and student affairs teams.
And it doesn’t stop there. It continues throughout the rest of the student/alumni lifecycle. How and what are you communicating to alumni? Are you letting them know about what is happening at the school now – both the good and the bad, and what plans you have for the future? About what other alumni are doing? About current students? About the faculty and/or research? About some of the history or trivia about the school – and how it laid the foundation for the institution’s current culture and success? About how they can become involved with the school now?
In the public sphere, what are you saying about the school. Are you using words and stories that resonate with alumni? Would they recognize the place you describe?
And how about admissions? What are you doing in admissions that will ensure the long-term success of the students and the school? Are you screening for fit – academic and cultural? Are you looking for students that actively participate in their communities and show a proclivity to engage and contribute? Will these people thrive in your environment and become lifelong ambassadors for the school?
Several years ago, I lead a project to “restart” and alumni relations organization that had had six directors in twelve years and a disengaged alumni base. Beginning with some qualitative research, we scheduled a series of individual interviews and group discussions with alumni in several countries and asked them about their experiences as alumni, how they would like to interact with the school as alumni, etc., and one alumnus summed it up quite well: “I loved the place – it changed my life and I am enormously proud for having gone there and what you all are doing. But you need to keep in front of me and keep telling me why I should continue to care.”
What are you doing to create positive experiences for students while they are in your program that will build the foundation for strong alumni relations?