Engaging Alumni – some ideas to ponder

As I travel about, it is fascinating the variety of successes that each institution enjoys. There are likely a number of reasons for success and I am hoping to break down some of them in future submissions. Today, I want to talk about alumni.

My undergraduate work was at Houghton (NY), a small, church related liberal arts college located in a rural area of New York State. Some said it was akin to a monastery but the social benefits were actually quite good. Few went home for the weekends. Some of us had cars and could drive 45 minutes to a city of 20,000 or about 90 minutes to the great city of Buffalo. We lived in dorms the first two years, followed by being scattered about the community; mainly in people’s basements. There were a lot of chances to bond.

For many years, some of my closest friends were those with whom I shared four years of life at Houghton. They remain dear friends today, though the closeness is not quite at the level that it once was. The academic life was good there, as was the spiritual and social environment. I met my dear wife at the College and all three of our kids are grads. You would say that I am a well-connected alum, particularly when it is revealed that I taught there and served as CFO for over eight years.

So, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that I don’t feel all that connected to my alma mater. I can’t say that it is the institution’s fault. Having studied and worked there I have moved on to other spheres of activity and friendships. I still interface with some of my classmates and faculty colleagues via Facebook or LinkedIn but there really isn’t a passion for the place anymore and I can’t put my finger on precisely when that happened or why.

As I pondered this, I began looking at websites for other, similar institutions. I also started viewing the various alumni magazines that are found on friend’s coffee tables or strategically placed in the powder room, next to a stack of Guideposts. I learned a few things from this exercise.

Websites. A place with the reputation of Wheaton College (IL) has a button for alumni on its splash page. Clicking on it, you enter a world that is more than just a fundraising endeavor. There are plenty of ways to reconnect with your former classmates and to be engaged with alumni-related activities. Westmont (CA) has a less obvious button but it is still on the splash page. There, you learn about an alumni sports tournament, homecoming and the life of a featured alum. Gordon College (MA) has an “After Gordon” button that leads to a bunch of stories about grads and a variety of ways to reconnect with schoolmates.

Then, there is Taylor University (IN), with a reputation as one of the most beloved institutions in the strata of my alma mater. The “Connect with Taylor” button sends you to their Facebook page and it all seems somewhat lame. For a school that has an amazing array of traditions and rabidly loyal alums, you wouldn’t know it from their website. Alas, there is no smoking gun here and, truth be told, people have to be steered to a website to engage with it. Even so, it seems appropriate to offer ways for alumni to be honored, highlighted and connected on the website.

Magazines. It is interesting how, in the digital age, people still enjoy a well-made magazine from their college. My daughter is employed by Kenyon College and, besides having a prominent button on their splash page about life after Kenyon, they produce a pretty impressive magazine. In a recent issue were stories of a multitude of graduates who became authors. Of course, this same institution graduated people with names like Alan Alda and Paul Newman but it was interesting to me how they featured so many grads. The span of years and multitude of experiences likely created touchstones for alums. Everybody probably knew at least one of the authors. I found this both impressive and clever.

Another magazine (and the institution in this case has to remain nameless) was more like a giant promotional piece. Page after page talked about the institution in glowing terms, with sidebars touting the benefits available for prospective and current students. It left me somewhat turned off because it lacked the personal connections that were evident in other publications. I thought about suggesting to them that they insert a full-page statement somewhere in the bowels of their publication that merely said, “But wait, there’s more … “

Fundraising. Schools need to raise a lot of dough in order to remain alive in an age where affordability is a paramount concern. Schools that do this well have marshalled the efforts of alumni captains for each class, supported by a class committee. Successful ones have a measure of autonomy in that the school doesn’t write the letters or emails and school stationery or the standard web image of the school isn’t necessarily used. Projects or the annual fund are selected by the class committee and the push is to raise the most of any class or have the greatest participation. Competition is a good thing and people get excited about being considered the best amongst a well-loved peer group.

Forum. It could be a Facebook or LinkedIn group. The idea is to get alumni chatting with each other and engaging topics of current interest. Well-established institutions are not afraid of this, recognizing that the life of the mind should be robust well after receiving a diploma. Others may be fearful about what might be said in such places. I say, let people chat about the matters of the day. It will bring them back to the days when we argued from ignorance in residence halls as freshmen. Or, it will change some minds from the kindly perspective of a fellow classmate who traveled a different road.

In the end, it is engagement that institutions have to foster. Make people feel good about being a part of the campus legacy. Make them know specifically how much they are valued and that their ideas remain important. Tout their accomplishments. Share their sorrow. Tell their stories.

In turn, they will recommend the place to the next generation, give more money and pray a little harder. Some will do all three.