How to Engage Your Alumni from Day OneFebruary 8th, 2017 | Share on:
How do you make students want to give back to their alma mater? Universities have been asking themselves this question more or less since the creation of the higher education system as we know it. However, as old as the task of alumni engagement may be, things have started to change. Previously tried-and-true strategies of engaging alumni no longer apply in our age of unlimited information.
Already disengaged alumni will probably not rekindle the connection by flicking through an alumni magazine or receiving the occasional invite to a reunion event. Today, we are all flooded with email and your newsletter may well remain unread in an alumnus’ inbox. Overall, it can be hard to give your alumni an incentive to engage with your institution.
The solution? Make sure that your students are engaged before they become alumni!
The best opportunity for you to create a connection with your future alumni is while they are still present on campus. Building the identity and pride that will make your alumni want to give back is a task that starts on their first day at university.
Forget what you know about alumni relations
The last thing any person wants to feel like is a cash cow. Alumni are growing less and less fond of phone calls asking for donations or magazine features that only talk about university fundraising strategies. When complemented by content that does not speak to their interests, your campaigns are not going to strike a chord. A study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education shows that the least popular sections of magazines are about faculty awards and achievements, donors, and faculty appointments and retirements. These sections often take up major space in alumni magazines, and they will leave many in your audience with a feeling of ‘so what?’.
Alumni outreach should be for and about the alumni themselves, and not just a list of campus news. Instead of asking how alumni can give back, think about how you can make your alumni successful.
Knowing what's needed to make your alumni successful starts by getting to know them while they are students.
Get to know your students as part of a successful alumni engagement strategy.
What do students want?
We spoke with current students about how they view their university’s alumni engagement, and if they would like to give back one day.
“I’m not currently involved, but I know there’s a vibrant network,” says Nathan French, a third year student at Bard College, New York. “I hope to enjoy it in the future, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on specifically.”
What strengthens Nathan's identity as a Bard student is the sense that all students have certain values in common, and that the university actively invests in supporting these values by proudly maintaining a focus on the arts. Nathan is hoping that this shared identity will last beyond graduation.
What is special about your institution that makes it worth coming back to? Find it, and make sure that your students know about this shared identity from day one.
Nathan also feels that a personal touch will be important to him in future alumni relations. “I am part of the alumni network of my high school and I’m already receiving regular emails asking for donations. As a college student, that’s quite frustrating, and it doesn’t feel personal at all.”
He says that he’d love to give back monetarily in the future (once he is in a position to do so), but that alumni engagement for him should also be about maintaining contact with professors and advisers, and recommending his university to prospective students.
It’s important to address the actual needs of your students when building the foundation for a great alumni relationship. Understanding the circumstances and ambitions of your students is the first step. Then you can see where your institution can provide help and support that simultaneously boosts your students’ identification, pride and enthusiasm for being part of your community.
Student outreach that matters
Many universities give their students a glimpse of what life after graduation is like through an alumni mentoring scheme (which we've written about in a previous blog post). This provides a helpful way into the alumni network for students, and a concrete way for alumni to give back to their alma mater.
Another way to ease your students' way into graduate life, and to build pride, is to invite inspiring alumni to give talks and workshops on campus. However, organising mutually beneficial events is one thing. Making sure that students know what you offer and how they can benefit is another.
“I’ve signed up to the online alumni network since the university kept pushing it, but I am not active in it,” says Erika Augustsson, a third year student at the University of Glasgow. “I don’t know that much about what else is going on with the alumni network.”
You need to communicate with students on their terms. Social media, on-campus campaigns, or even a well-designed and managed online community can help with this. You can learn about VeryConnect's online communities for alumni associations here.
Understanding your students, offering value that boosts identification and pride, and communicating this value form the first step to a successful alumni relationship. After graduation this relationship will need to be maintained for continued success.
A successful alumni engagement strategy works before and after graduation.
Meeting your alumni where they are
There won’t be any two people in your alumni network who have the same lives, needs, or memories of your institution. Someone might end up moving halfway across the world, while another may be teaching in the same department where they spent their first day as an undergrad. Everyone will want to engage in different ways and to different degrees.
Effective alumni engagement needs to build on knowing your alumni and personalise your communications to their interests, as opposed to sending generic magazines and calls for donations. Alumni will only want to stay involved if they feel that their life experiences are being respected while being tied back to what they all have in common: your university.
So how do you know what your alumni are interested in? Ask them! The needs of a recent grad and people who are well advanced in their careers will differ, even if pride and identity tie them together. Ask how you can help both your recent and more experienced alumni to succeed today.
To sum up - a good relationship with your alumni has to be earned. Understand your students, what they want and what's underpinning their pride and shared identity. Offer them value while they are on campus and communicate the benefits on their terms. Listen to the needs of your alumni at different career stages.
Understanding your unique identity, what students want, and how these needs evolve over time can help you move away from generic communications to an alumni outreach and a relationship that matters.