Today, the first installment in our Ask Switchboard column, where we or friends of Switchboard answer anonymous questions from readers.
Our first reader question is about using continuing education to engage alumni. Kathy Edersheim, formerly of Yale and now president of Impactrics, has written eloquently on the subject, so we hand it off to her.
Want to submit a question of your own? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How can we help our alumni continue to learn from each other and the institution? We're looking into book clubs and podcasts right now.
Alumni seek continuing education from many sources and in many forms. Their alma mater is uniquely positioned to address that interest and in a way that is mutually beneficial. While alumni read great literature or perhaps become better prepared for a career transition, the institution can showcase its professors and build relationships with alumni.
Continuing education can range from an hour-long broadcast call to a half-hour-long podcast to an in-depth campus experience. Programs can be volunteer-organized or centrally-designed and managed. You should consider what best suits your alumni, your mission, and your resources when deciding what type of program to establish and maintain. First, answer these questions:
- What content aligns with our institution and the interests of our alumni?
- Where are our alumni and how can we best reach them?
- Do we want the programs to be organized centrally or by alumni volunteers?
- What results do we want from the program for the institution, like showcasing faculty or building reputation beyond campus as well as for alumni?
- Do we want to use these programs as a way to cultivate volunteer leadership?
Depending on the answers to the questions, you can consider a variety of programs and shape them accordingly. Here are some concepts and organizing options that might be of interest:
- Book clubs: An excellent way to begin engagement as they can be encouraged from your alumni relations office starting with guidelines on communications, organizing principles, and book selection for volunteers to organize in their regions—or can be driven centrally with a one-school-one-book program and showcase an alumni author. To determine traction for the concept, you can canvass your regional alumni leadership for their willingness to drive the effort as well as their expressed interest. The challenge with a book club is driving sustained attendance. There need to be initial enthusiasm and participation as well as ongoing communication and encouragement to make your program sustainable. You should consider whether it should be an annual program, a quarterly program, or a monthly program based on alumni interest. A good option is to start a book club as a pilot program rather than make a long-term commitment.
- Podcasts: Podcasts generally work best when they are a series with frequent, often weekly, content presented by a compelling host (or hosts). Some professors are interested in building their personal brand through podcasts or blogging, which is a good opportunity for your team. You can support the host and spread the word about the podcast series. You might even be able to help with ideas for content or providing guests. If your team needs to produce the podcasts, not to mention determine the content, this can be a lot of work.
- Webinars: Webinars, like podcasts, require compelling content to be successful. Occasionally, a webinar that is mostly chat session (or even a broadcast conference call) can engage alumni; however, that is mostly about communication rather than alumni engagement and learning. Again, the greatest opportunity is to share content that is already being produced by an academic part of your school. Although you might want to offer a series of webinars, there is no expectation of frequent “events" as there is with a podcast. You might find volunteer leaders to help create or curate the occasional webinar, but webinar content is likely to be more of a centralized effort.
- Faculty or alumni lectures: If the primary goal for educational programming is conveying new ideas to alumni in regional areas, the “old-fashioned” speaker event is still worthwhile. Faculty often travel and like to engage with alumni. Alumni like to get the perspective from campus. If faculty are not available, encourage regional associations and chapters to have local alumni speak about their area of expertise. Simple guidelines for identifying speakers and organizing events can help volunteers put together a speaker event or series if there is sufficient structure in the regional chapter. Note that you might have to help your chapters with publicizing the events.
- Auditing classes: Many schools allow alumni to audit classes for a very reasonable rate. If you have a lot of alumni near campus, consider what kind of supplemental programming can leverage this opportunity. And remember to publicize the opportunity for auditing as a significant alumni benefit.
As with so many types of alumni engagement, continuing education can and should serve the mission of your institution as well as the interests of your alumni. What makes sense for your institution will be determined by the viability of resources and whether you want to develop volunteer leadership. Most important of all is to consider what your alumni want from this type of engagement so that your investment of time and effort gets the results you want—whether engagement or fundraising for you or learning for them.
Kathy Edersheim is president of Impactrics. She was Senior Director of International Alumni Relations and Travel at the Association of Yale Alumni, responsible for Yale Educational Travel and the three global mission programs, YaleGALE, Yale Alumni Service Corps, and Yale Alumni Schools Ambassadors, as well as being part of the management team for five years. She currently serves on the Advisory Group for the Alumni Association of the Max Planck Society and is Treasurer of Future First Global, a UK-based charity dedicated to community development through alumni relations for secondary schools. As a volunteer, Kathy served on the AYA Board of Governors for four years. Kathy was the first woman President of the Yale Club of New York City.
Impactrics provides the tools and guidance—including robust, customized metrics—to support your educational institution to develop and deliver strong alumni relations programs that benefit the institution, students, alumni, and the broader community. Impactrics's clients are universities, community colleges, secondary schools, and other educational institutions or programs based around the world working to provide a better education and to be more effective in achieving their vision.