What does it actually look like?
What do we get out of it?
How do we make it happen?
These are the three central questions facing any attempt to break down walls between offices.
The barrier between alumni relations and career services is one of the most heavily scrutinized, but many alumni relations and career services teams still struggle to answer those three questions when considering a partnership or merger. Some institutions, though, have managed to answer them.
Michelle Marks-Hook, Volunteer Program Director at the University of Rochester’s Gwen M. Green Center, recently presented on the topic at the CASE District 2 Conference. I discussed her presentation with her beforehand to learn more about how the alumni relations and career services teams at the U of R are working together, what they get out of it, and how they made it happen. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and continuity.
Alumni relations and career services offices in higher ed are siloed. You might work on a project with a career services office here and there, get invited to a career fair, or invite them to a networking event, but that’s usually about it. How can working with career services increase capacity?
MMH: When I’m talking about capacity, I’m talking about two things.
One, my goal is to have alumni who have been stewarded by career services eventually be better donors.
Two, our alumni, most of them, have some form of employment and knowledge that they can share with students. It’s an easy way to get these alumni engaged. These alumni can talk about themselves, and they are experts in the field they’ve chosen. Why haven’t we always been taking advantage of this group, especially if our alumni have been excited about their institution? This is the easiest way for them to give back. When you look at a young alum who might not have the capacity to give but who still want to do something for their institution, why not let them help in a career services capacity? Whether they’re being a networker, doing mock interviews for you, doing a workshop or a webinar, let them share something within their own field and keep them connected.
That’s where the word “capacity” comes from.
So you’re talking about both building capacity for giving and for volunteering. How have you done that at Rochester?
MMH: My role at the Greene Center was created just over three years ago, and all I do is alumni volunteer management. My charge is to locate alumni who can assist our students. I’ve divided my role into finding alumni who can help in three different ways. Maybe it’s just by networking—one. We do a lot in New York, a lot in DC. We have students who want to be in those locations, so it’s easy to do a big networking event and call in advancement officers. And obviously for our students, these are people that they can connect with.
I’ve got my other bucket of educating, so these are the people I can call on to say, “Hey you went into consulting and you went through a case interview, we’ve got students who need to do case interview prep. We here in the Greene Center, we don't have personal experience with case interviews and how best to prep someone to succeed at them, but you have done that. Can you help this student excel to the next part of their education and career?” That’s the second way.
And then you’ve got basic recruiting, so, “You work at XYZ company, we’d love to get in.” We’re a great school, but companies are not pounding on our doors. We have to create a different way to get into these companies, so we create a pipeline by efficiently tapping into our alumni and our parents of current students. That’s the third way I want alumni to help.
Your role is unusual in that you’re the alumni volunteer program director, but you’re located in the career center rather than in an alumni office.
MMH: Exactly. It is unique. It’s a challenge for me because I don’t have peer colleagues because people don’t do this in the career center. It makes sense, but I had to make it up as I was going along. It’s not as if someone said, “Oh, this is how we do it in our office.” I had to think about, well, what does this actually mean? It started off with my working in this office. I had just been doing alumni programs. I was finding alumni in different industries and having them come and talk on campus. But then that relationship would end: They’d come, they’d give one talk, and they’d be done.
So when we got new leadership in the office, when my executive director came in, he asked, “What would you like to do?” I said I’d rather build relationships with these individuals because I think they could add true value in the long run. He said, “OK, well, make it happen.” At first I bit off more than I could chew because that was not what I was expecting him to say. I had to figure it out. It was not a model that anybody else was really doing at the time.
What kind of relationship do you have with your alumni relations office at Rochester?
MMH: We have a very close relationship. It’s taken me about eight years to build that trust. You mentioned earlier that at many college campuses we work in silos. Alumni relations does their thing, advancement does their thing, and career services does their thing. I’ve tried to collaborate with our alumni relations office whenever I’ve done any sort of program. I work with regional alumni managers, I work with some of the advancement officers that work in some of these bigger target cities that we go to, and I meet with my alumni relations connection once a week. There’s a relationship founded on trust that I can talk to alumni without offending them, without saying the wrong thing. On the alumni relations side of things, they have some volunteer management already. It’s a little different than what I do, but those people who work with volunteers, who work with reunion volunteers, who do the bigger gift kind of stuff, I go to their meeting on a regular basis. We’ve been able to do several programs successfully. Advancement officers can count them as visits when they do these types of events because they visit and connect with prospects.
Our relationship is close, but it didn’t come overnight. It was a matter of our grabbing onto a shared mission and vision and values. Sometimes we think career services is just servicing students. But those students become our alumni. Our mission is to create successful alumni. So if you look at advancement, they want alumni to be successful as well because then they have capacity to give. It’s been a matter of meeting with these individuals and getting buy-in around that common goal.
You mentioned that relationship with alumni and advancement didn’t get built overnight. That can be difficult. How did you build trust with other offices?
MMH: Everybody who’s ever worked in alumni relations or advancement understands what their colleagues expect of them. Follow through on those expectations. I had to go to events that had alumni attending and demonstrate that I wasn’t going to make a fool out of myself, that I wasn’t going to embarrass the institution. I traveled with some of the advancement officers. I did some events with alumni relations team. It showed that I was committed to exactly the same things they were. I wasn’t just sitting in my office saying, “Hey I want to work with you, I’m really good with alumni.” I got out there and said, “Hey, I see you’re going to New York City, can I tag along?” It helped because we were going through a change in our office, we had new leadership, and some of the people we visited had had a poor experience with the career center previously. It was a way for us to show that we were changing for the better.
What have you been able to accomplish with these relationships with other offices?
MMH: Just from 2017-2018, we increased alumni engagement, people who helped the career center, by 37 percent. Some of those alumni had never been engaged before at all. These were people who had never had experience or exposure, had never given a cent, had never gone to an event or activity. Now these people are stepping up. We went from having a handful of people who would do a program for the career center to having a list of almost 700 alumni volunteers for the career center. These are people who we can pull up and ask for help. We’ve increased employer postings. Some of my alumni are still beginning their career, so they’re not in a space where they can give a lot, but we have done industry road trips where we engage younger alumni as well as bigger prospects.
As for fundraising, one gentleman, when we had reached half our goal to fund one of our industry road trips, came in and said he’d do the rest. He had never done anything with the career center before. He had a little bit of engagement, but people weren’t knocking at his door asking him to give. We touched something that was meaningful to him, the activity just needed to be shared with him and he was willing to make a donation.
Another example of giving is when we shared with a trustee that we were starting a clothes closet for the career center. This trustee had come from a humble background and said that when he first got into the workforce he didn’t have a suit, so he knew how valuable this was. He’s helped to fund some of our initiative. We needed hangers, we needed racks, basic items to get started before donations started to come in. It’s another way for them to give, and it gives them purpose. They aren’t just saying, “Yeah, I’ll give to the university.” We can give them something that has a tangible impact on the life of a student.
When you worked with that trustee or other alumni who have given as a result of your engagement, has that been because you referred them to advancement?
MMH: A lot of times our referrals come from advancement. Part of what I had to do was educate the advancement office about what I was trying to accomplish. I said, “Hey, if you meet someone and they’re not sure if they want to give yet, let’s make them feel good. Let’s make them important.” By having them assist the career center, they’re getting that feel-good touch. Once a month, I get a bunch of different people who will tell me, “I was out on the road, can you follow up with this person, this person, and this person?” So then I do personal outreach, I call them on the phone, and we have a personal conversation to figure out what the best fit is.
We also approach our stewardship team and our fundraising group and let them know we need money for our industry road trips and internship funding. Over the summer there are obviously students who take unpaid internships but are doing it in a city where they need living expenses. This is a way for us to give alumni something that’s tangible, where they can say, “I’m helping a student do an internship that will help her career.” That’s a partnership we’ve formed. I don’t really go out and say, “Hey, I’ve got this person who’s willing to give.” It is the opposite way where we state our need and ask advancement to go out and find someone.
You’re speaking at a CASE conference, where people might be in an alumni or advancement office working with a career services office. What advice can you offer folks working from that direction?
MMH: Get in the same room together. I’ve gone to the CASE district conference, so I’ve talked to many of these individuals in alumni relations before. It’s not that they’re opposed to doing the talking. It just hasn’t become a priority. My advice is get in the same room and talk about what your mission, vision, and values are. What are you trying to achieve? Find where there’s common ground, where you can achieve something together, and where you can achieve greater good. Talk to other offices’ executive directors, their directors, and say, “Hey, we can partner on this,” and explain how this will benefit students, alumni, the institution as a whole.