Building Relationships Beyond Your Campus

7 ways to make the most of professional associations

September 8, 2016

One of the things that fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville, observer and critic of democracy, was the extraordinary extent to which Americans “associate.”

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes.”

He was dazzled by the range, activity and promise. Americans, he saw, were using connections to (hopefully) move forward and get results.

Today, higher education marketers are not strangers to the many associations in our profession – from the global and national scale of CASE and AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education to the alphabet soup of organizations serving education on the regional, state, and local levels.

So, it’s worth taking stock on how we’re effectively taking advantage of these resources and opportunities.

At a time when our institutions are wrestling with critical issues—access and affordability, diversity and inclusion, articulating our value proposition, effectively using new marketing and communication tools, and advocating for our teams (to name only a few)—how and what we learn from each other is more important than ever.

I recently moved from one institution to another, and from one coast to the other. I am fortunate to remain in a national association of 28 colleges and universities linked by religious affiliation. I have kept an established and familiar network of professionals, colleagues, and friends. I can continue to turn to this trusted network when I have questions about best practices, legal precedents, and research findings; when I am sending out an RFP or hiring for a new position; and when I need informal advice or a reality check. Beyond the help it gives me personally and professionally, it is a network that is working effectively to advance awareness of our institutions among diverse constituencies.

As you take stock of your own relationship with your associations, here are some suggestions and reminders:

  • Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Becoming a member of an association and/or attending conferences costs money. With budget realities, no one can be a profligate joiner or conference-goer. Make decisions that are fiscally sound and align with your department and institution policies. But factor in the return on your investment—and articulate them for yourself and your leadership. How will membership and attendance advance your professional goals? How will it benefit your institution? How will it help your team grow?
  • Look for ways around the sticker price. You have expertise that your association values. In exchange for the conference fee, can you submit a proposal for a presentation? Participate on a panel? Judge award submissions? Many conferences will also post proceedings, papers, and presentations online following the conference.
  • Don’t just show up. You are not helping anyone if you don’t participate in your associations. Use and contribute to listservs. Volunteer to serve on a committee or in a leadership role. Share your work and successes. Ask questions of speakers and presenters. Network at the social hour—not just hover by the raw bar.
  • Encourage your team. By modeling collaboration with your association colleagues, you are mentoring emerging leaders. Many associations and conferences have scholarships and award programs for staff new to the field. Explore ways to get staff engaged with the groups and organizations you find valuable. Listen when staff bring conference opportunities that you may not be familiar to you. When they’re back in the office, have them share what they’ve learned.
  • Not every association is forever. Your relationship with annual conferences and membership organizations will change over time and with your professional development. It’s OK to break up if you are not getting what you need. And it may be time for that younger colleague to step up to represent your institution.
  • Leverage your relationships to make news. Use your connections and networks to collaborate on media pitches. Program X at your institution is excellent, but chances are it’s not unique. If there are three other institutions across the country introducing programs with similar goals, you and your colleagues may have a national trend story on your hands.
  • Connect with your neighbors. In a multi-college market? Get to know your counterparts across town. These informal relationships can be immensely helpful. You may be competing for students, but when local legislative or community relations issues emerge that affect you all, collaboration and communication will proceed faster and more smoothly.

Remarking on the outcomes of associations, Tocqueville wrote: “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action by [people] upon one another.”

With that in mind, I am looking forward to attending my first meeting in my new hometown with new colleagues and a new network at this month’s PRSA/CHE West Coast Forum.

Ellen Ryder, recently named vice president for marketing communications at the University of San Francisco, previously was chief marketing and communications officer at the College of the Holy Cross, where she worked for 12 years.


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