How Kean University Engages Alumni

Stella Maher, director of alumni relations at Kean University.

Stella Maher, director of alumni relations at Kean University.

We all want to do more for our alumni. The question is: Where do we start?

Setting institutional priorities means balancing the desires of our alumni, the needs of existing programs, and the resources required to develop new ones.

We asked Kean University's Director of Alumni Relations, Stella Maher, to share what her team's priorities are.

Could you describe Kean's alumni engagement strategy?

Kean has over 89,000 alumni predominantly living locally in driving distance to the University. 

We offer a number of reunion opportunities, especially around affinity groups such as greek organization, athletic teams, and specific departments/majors on campus, which we find resonate more with our alumni than class year reunions. We also offer a menu of volunteer options to fit the desires and availability of our alumni, whether they can give one day to speak to a class, or 4 years to serve a term on the Alumni Board. Kean has changed a lot over the years, so it is important for us to get alumni back to campus and on a tour to see the Kean of today.

This year, you've been focusing on online engagement and career development for alumni. Why did you choose those as priorities? How has it gone?

Our immediate priorities are engaging alumni in their professional and career development. When they are unemployed or under-employed, it is harder for them to be able to return to campus for events or volunteerism. We are providing tangible benefits where they can say specifically, "The Alumni Association gave this to me, or helped me in this way," such as online networking.
While most of our alumni live nearby, that doesn’t mean they want to battle the campus traffic and parking for brick-and-mortar events. We offer online networking nights where alumni can connect with one-another from their couch, office, or coffee shop. With campuses in Tom’s River, NJ (Kean Ocean) and Wenzhou, China (Wenzhou-Kean), this will grow Kean’s global presence as our alumni demographic shifts. 

It’s still fairly early in the year to discuss how this focus is going, but we had strong attendance at our first online networking night and good survey results that alumni enjoyed the opportunity and want more. Now that we are through some of the major in-person events, I hope to spend more of the winter term focused on webinars and getting more of our programs up online so we can build this resource for alumni. If you’re doing an in-person panel or discussion already, it makes sense to record it and share that out so it becomes a living resource and will be another tangible benefit we can direct our alumni to utilize. 

'Engagement' can be pretty abstract. How does Kean make engagement measurable and trackable?

Our staff spent FY15 really developing our Alumni Engagement Rate and going through the process of coding all of the necessary data to start out with a benchmark. We began with the 3 basic criteria espoused by Chris Marshall of GG&A that are becoming a standard in our field: donors, event attendees, and volunteers.

In addition, we have added other engagement areas we are able to code: one-on-one visits with our staff, social media engagement, and purchasing memberships such as the gym or the museum. We obtained the number for each category, then removed duplicates that becomes the number of unique engaged alumni. For our base year, we coded 3,194 engaged alumni, which makes the rate 4.3% (of mailable alumni).

It’s hard to illustrate where that rate falls compared to other similar institutions, since the idea of calculating alumni engagement is still new to the field, and many schools aren’t able to accurately code these criteria. Over the next few years, I expect we will see more and more schools that are doing the calculations so we can start to have conversations about where we are relative to our peers, like our advancement colleagues have with giving rates. 

If you could impart one piece of wisdom to someone devising a new alumni engagement program, what would it be?

The biggest lesson I have learned this past year in re-invigorating a program is to pick your priorities and create a few strong programs first versus trying to do a little bit of everything. I had to look at what I felt we must be doing (reunions, events, volunteer committees, communications, professional development) first and be patient for things I would like to be doing (travel program, regional chapters/clubs, legacy admission events, student alumni association) a little further down the road.

With newer programs, it is important to remember no two schools are the same and adapt your strategy to fit your alumni. At prior institutions, we would build a packed 3-4 day reunion or homecoming weekend expecting alumni to fly in from out of town and anticipating they wanted something to do the entire time. At Kean, I’ve found when we plan those multi-event weekends, sometimes our alumni have to pick and choose because they are local and don’t want to get baby sitters both nights, or only feel like driving to campus once that weekend. Review best practices and absorb what you can at conferences, but always be sure to view them through the lens of your institution’s alumni. 

Follow Stella Maher on Twitter.