Alumni boards and councils are integral parts of well-oiled alumni relations machines. They're our liaisons to our communities, and they put in hundreds of hours in volunteer work every year.
But our hopes and dreams for our alumni councils don't always match reality.
St. Paul Academy and Summit School, an independent school in St. Paul, MN, has revitalized its alumni council in the last few years to bridge that gap. We asked Jen Jung, director of alumni/ae programs, and Jenni Beadle, director of annual giving, about their efforts, which they discussed at their recent CASE NAIS panel, "Culture Change in Your Alumni Council."
Alumni councils don’t always live up to expectations. What, in your minds, constitutes the ideal alumni council?
In our minds, an ideal alumni council is one whose mission aligns with the mission of your institution. Additionally, the organization should be framed as one of alumni advocacy, as well as volunteerism and service to the school. alumni councils should be made up of members that are engaged, inspired to action, and have the license to bring ideas to the table.
We also feel that alumni councils need to be the right size for your institution’s needs. Alumni councils should be small enough that everyone has a voice and a role, but large enough that notable accomplishments can take place.
Finally, a council should have a visible presence in the school community, not just with their fellow alumni, but also within the parent, faculty/staff, and student communities.
You led SPA’s alumni council through a significant transformation. What did your alumni council look like at the beginning of that process?
At the beginning of our transformation process, our alumni council was a small group of volunteers—many who had been in the role for too long—that operated on a mission of only alumni advocacy, with little to no institutional support. There was a lack of trust of both the administration and the advancement office due to staff turnover and poor communication. The council was also hyper-focused on recruitment because of low membership, but went about trying to increase numbers without much strategy other than finding people to represent every decade. There was a general lack of creativity and ownership of any council initiatives, and for most of the volunteers, it was just a line on a resume.
How did you get your alumni council to where it is now?
It took over five years for our alumni council to get to the positive place it is now; change does not happen overnight! It started with SPA hiring staff members in the alumni relations role with a background in advancement and professional experience serving as a school liaison to volunteers. Jenni started in 2011, and Jen started in 2013. Both of us came from higher education with professional backgrounds in alumni relations and development. Prior to our hires, only SPA alumni served in the alumni relations role.
That is not to say that alumni cannot serve their institution as professional staff members, but at SPA, it was not working well. Both of us (while serving in the Alumni Relations role) were careful to act as liaisons to the Council—our role is not to lead to the organization, trying to serve as “co-president” or pushing our own agendas.
From there, the next step was appointing new leadership for the Council—naming a strong new president who supported a new direction and wanted to bring new life to the Council. After the new president was in place, the Council recruited new members without focusing on representation on every decade, but instead, bringing in people who wanted to be part of the organization and wanted to make valuable contributions.
To help bring some direction to Council activities, committees were formed with action items and goals. The new members and President assisted in a complete re-write of the Alumni Council bylaws giving them influence and ownership over the new direction of the organization. A new meeting format was implemented that met the needs of the membership, as well as encouraged attendance at the monthly meetings.
Thanks to better communication and cooperation, along with stronger staff support, the Council created new initiatives and eliminated ineffective ones; a new found sense of ownership and accountability was apparent.
Because of the positive relationship with the staff liaisons, the Council was more interested and involved in the work of the advancement office. Additionally, they became more visible in the community through communication in school publications (e-newsletter; magazine), presence at advancement events (reunion weekend; donor events), support of alumni participation in annual giving (directly soliciting classmates and 100% participation in the annual fund as a Council), and volunteerism in institutional activities (college counseling interview program; commencement).
New recognition strategies were implemented by staff to show the community the importance and value of the council members’ contributions. Overall, volunteer satisfaction was much stronger among council members, and it is no longer just a line on their resumes.
This may seem like a lot of changes, but again, this happened over the course of five years with the help of two staff members.
What role does SPA’s alumni council fill now that it has changed?
Unlike the Board of Trustees, our Alumni Council does not create policy, but they are still highly influential. It is now the go-to volunteer group for our advancement office in terms of event support, brainstorming, and reaching the alumni community. Because their mission aligns with mission of the institution, they are “insiders” and are positive voices for the school, as well as positive influencers of their peers.
Our Alumni Council consists of respected leaders, stewards of annual giving, and champions for St. Paul Academy and Summit School. The contributions that they make, from their incredibly successful signature event—the Alumni/ae Council Speaker Series—to their vested interest and desire to see the institution thrive, are valued by all members of the community and the faculty and staff of the institution.