What Role Should Your Alumni Association Play In The Lives of Alumni?

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branding imageI was on a long flight back from visiting my in-laws in Florida and had a lot of time to think.  Donning headsets with noise canceling capabilities, I was able to mask the noise of the baby wailing a few rows back and reflect on discussions I’ve had with alumni professionals on the future of alumni relations.

I got thinking about what role alumni relations was playing in the lives of alumni in this rapidly changing economy. Is the alumni association in business to support the needs of alumni or the needs of the college?

If you asked your alumni, a good number would say the alumni association is in business to build support for the college annual giving, major giving, estate planning, and capital campaigns.

There in lies an opportunity!

In 2006, I wrote a report called Your NEXT-NET Thing, Reinventing Your Alumni Association for the Internet Era, where I identified three ways alumni associations could use the Internet to rebrand and realign services to be more relevant for and better serve alumni. These included:

  1. Using Internet technology for career development, networking, amplifying nostalgia, providing learning opportunities, and helping alumni transition to different phases of their lives.
  2. Integrating Internet technology into each department within the alumni association.
  3. Partnering with social/business networking communities and relevant websites.

Nearly all colleges are using technology to cut costs, speed up communications, and better inform alumni.  Nearly all colleges have leveraged social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to engage alumni, but only small minority are actively using the Internet to help alumni build successful career strategies, provide learning opportunities and help them transition through phases in their lives.

The one area that has the most potential to not only help the alumni association increase engagement and alumni satisfaction, and at the same time increase enrollment, retention, and the graduation rate, along with grads with jobs, and finally, giving is by using the Internet to help students, grads and alumni lead successful careers.

Studies show grads and alumni want career help

In the early 1970’s when Freshmen were asked “Why are you going to college?” about 60 percent indicated they were going to college to better their chances of getting jobs.  When the freshman class of 2013 was asked the same question, more than 88% indicated they were going to college to better their chances of getting jobs.

This sentiment is not being voiced by just freshman.

  • The Alumni Attitude Study has been completed by over a million alumni from various colleges over the past two decades.   Overall alumni provide glowing accounts of their time on campus and the quality of their educations, however, EVERY institution that utilizes the AAS has found alumni rated them poorly when it comes to providing career-related help.   
  • Another study, this one conducted by the Olson Zaltman Associates, used a patented technique to get inside the minds of alumni to learn what they really wanted from their undergraduate alma maters.   The overwhelming response?

Alumni showed they wanted help in the transitions of their lives.

The Olson Zaltman Associates study found that alumni looked at their alma maters as paternal organizations, ones that educated them and provided the skills and knowledge that helped them launch their careers.  They indicated they would have preferred to keep those kinds of relationships with their colleges.  Alumni showed a great interest in relying on their alma maters to provide them information and access to career-related knowledge, health, finances, family and eventually retirement information.

The study found that there was a disconnect in the current relationship between alma maters and alumni.

The college defined the relationship as one built around nostalgia, tradition, and the sense of guilt that they owed the college for their education, and hence supported the steady assault of letters, phone calls and emails asking for contributions.  Alumni, on the other hand, felt they had paid a handsome sum for their educations and were not necessarily obligated any further.

Rebrand your alumni association and focus on careers!

So today, so much more than nearly a decade ago, alumni relations professionals have an opportunity to rebrand their roles and functions by focusing events and programming around careers.

What if you rebranded your alumni association around careers?  What if you decided that your number one reason for being– the number one reason your alumni association existed– is to help grads and alumni launch and lead successful careers?  A complete refocus might require you to drop events and activities, and adding new ones might focus on helping alumni launch and lead successful careers, as well as enjoy changes in job descriptions and even titles!

Rebranding to focus on careers might look a little bit like this:

  • Your association gets more involved with incoming freshman and you pair each and every freshman with alumni mentors as well as hold events with the career center to increase career ownership and reinforce the alumni associations focus on careers.
  • Your annual giving team starts making calls in the spring to ask for, and get, alumni commitments to help graduating seniors get internships or jobs. You could start a program where alumni help your grads get short term internships after they graduate.  This will help them get something on their resume and increase the likelihood they will find rewarding employment.
  • Every event and activity includes a career component to it. This includes networking, helping alumni do business with each other and providing coaching and mentoring.

An easy way to start rebranding your alumni association is by adopting TalentMarks’ CareerCommunity and CareerWebinar series.  This series provides an online community environment that delivers monthly webinars featuring the nation’s top career authors as well as career discussions, news and tools.  The branded career community delivers anytime, anywhere access to career curriculum and content.

The nice thing about rebranding your alumni association to focus on careers is you can take it at any pace you want– but don’t delay! 

Next steps

  1. Ask your board and your president’s council to help you define what your brand should be in the coming decade. Remind them of the need to focus on the customer, not the institution.
  2. Create a brand statement that reflects a commitment to helping students, grads and alumni launch successful careers.
  3. Partner with your career center to help them encourage students to take ownership of their career the minute they arrive on campus.
  4. Create events and activities that support career exploration, career management, career success.

Traditional business strategies show that the more you focus on customer needs, the more loyal and engaged customers will be, and the more they will spend with your business.

By moving to a business that is focused on helping alumni launch and lead successful careers, you will end up increasing enrollment, retention, grads with jobs and contributions!

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Don Philabaum
Love to find ways to use technology help more grads and alumni develop successful career strategies.
Don Philabaum
Don Philabaum
Don Philabaum

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