You Can't Be Everything to Everyone: How One Team at the IU Alumni Association Succeeded by Focusing on Older Alumni

IU alumni association

It's a challenge that we who serve alumni tend to take for granted: We have to serve them all.

But that mandate, when you think about it, is a bit absurd. How can we, however large our team, possibly serve every one of our thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of alumni? What can we possibly offer that will appeal to everyone?

After experimenting with a variety of programs and trying to serve all their alumni, Erin Erwin, Senior Associate Director of Career & Professional Development at the IUAA, and Emili Sperling Bennett, Associate Director of Career & Professional Development, decided instead to focus on a smaller piece of the pie: older alumni who need mid-to-late career advice. 

Erwin and Bennet presented recently on their work at the Alumni Career Services Network conference in Nashville. I interviewed them there and asked them to share how—and why—they focus on delivering alumni career services to established alumni.

At IU, you all are focusing on meeting the needs of alumni across generations, not just the needs of young alumni. Is that a need that came up on your radar recently? 

Emili Sperling Bennett

Emili Sperling Bennett

Bennett: About six or seven years ago, we did an alumni attitude survey, and it overwhelmingly showed that alumni need career services. This was post-2008, by a few years, but I think a lot of those alumni realized they needed support in some capacity. In order to better understand what a structure to support and serve people at different stages in their lives should look like, we turned to several leadership experts, on of whom is Jim Citrin, head of the CEO practice at placement firm Spencer Stewart. One of his books talks about different stages of your career: the early career is the "promise" phase, mid-career is "momentum," and late career is "harvest." So we were able to use that model, take it a step further, and use it for alumni engagement. We added three additional buckets, so we have "aspirational," "early career," "mid career," "late career," "encore," and "legacy." We started using that in our alumni programming because we realized that LinkedIn for a recent graduate or someone tech savvy in their twenties or early thirties is going to be very different than for someone who is not tech savvy in their forties or fifties. Different types of programming or topics is relevant for different ages. We used that approach to better segment our audiences so that we were meeting their needs rather than trying to do too much at once for too many people.

Erin Erwin

Erin Erwin

Erwin: One of the trends I’ve seen, and that was true at Indiana University, is that alumni career services often grows out of student career services, and therefore people think it is just for recent graduates. Establishing this new model for older alumni allowed this whole other audience to realize that we’re here to serve them too. One of our big pushes at the beginning was for alumni looking for a “second act” career. We’d have recently retired come and say, “Well, I want to do something meaningful with my retirement,” and they never would have thought to turn to the alumni association for that before.

So how do you make alumni aware that you offer that kind of guidance and those resources?

Bennett: We are mostly referral based. We work closely with our different stakeholders, those who work in our office who are working directly with alumni communities or chapters. One push is that we’re doing a lot of one-on-one coaching right now. We have different means of, for example, posting Facebook ads: “You’re a lifetime member did you know that you get a free career coaching session every year.” We have an alumni magazine with ads in it. Though there’s some, there’s a lot of room to grow when it comes to marketing. But some of our best leads have come from referrals. 

Erwin: IU has 670,00 living alumni. So we pretty much just have to accept that we can’t service everyone. Another challenge of our current model is that it’s not scaleable to that. We tried a few different online platforms and didn’t find that they were providing the quality of service that we wanted. The give and take is that we have a high touch model. We meet one-on-one with people, we give people, often, an hour of our time. That’s a lot of time, so we can’t service as many. To stay busy, we haven’t had to do a ton of marketing yet. But we’re five years into our business model it’s certainly something we have to start thinking about in years 6-10, how do we do more, what kind of growth do we want to have, and what direction are we going to take that.

Bennett: We have this high touch model, it’s really about quality over quantity. So we may not not seeing nearly as many people as some other offices may be, however, the metrics we’re held to are revenue, participation, and satisfaction. We are a revenue-generating startup—though we’re not a startup anymore—within the alumni association. We’re making money through our services. We are meeting revenue targets for sure. For satisfaction, we use NPS, and our scores are consistently very very high. When we look at participation, we have actually chosen to move away from very large events and programs. Most of what we do are those one-on-ones. So we are meeting our metrics very very well. When someone may come back to us and say, “You’re not meeting nearly as many alumni,” the quality for the alumni that we are meeting with is really high.

I don’t know if you all use this term, but I’ve heard it used to describe that kind of setup, is “intrapreneurship.” The idea that you exist within an already funded organization but you are taking on an entrepreneurial role with the resources and support of that umbrella organization.

Bennett: Our executive director called us a startup, or a career movement, I guess you could say. We haven’t used that term, intrapreneurship, but that’s essentially what we are doing. We used capital from the IU Foundation to get started. We’re not self sufficient with our operating budget, but we’re getting close.

What does that revenue generation look like, how does that model work for you all?

Erwin: Our individual coaching sessions are very discounted compared to the private sector. We found that when alumni turn back to their alumni association, they expect it not to be market price. So they are dramatically discounted, and depending on your level of membership it might be further discounted. It’s generally around a hundred dollars an hour for our coaching sessions. To supplement that, we also have executive leadership coaching, which is paid by an entity, an employer, with some sort of IU tie. We also do professional development for organizations, again for organizations that are in some way of by and for IU.

Bennett: It’s $2000 for a full day.

Erwin: Those two things make up our revenue generation.

IU is one sort of institution. You have a large dues-paying alumni association, and a lot of schools don’t have that kind of model. Is there anything that any school can learn from this project even if they’re very different from IU?

Bennett: It’s interesting, the more we tried to do a lot of things for a lot of people, we weren’t getting as much traction as we wanted. One thing we have learned is, when we ask Erin, “Erin, what do you really love, what are your strengths when it comes to coaching?” Erin really loves the on on one, she loves working with individual alumni. I love the leadership coaching and organizational development facilitation. When we have been able to focus on the things we really love, it’s seen throughout our work, so we’ve been able to invest in the things that bring us joy and the things that have brought us success through using our strengths.

Erwin: The other thing that has been influential is design thinking and embracing design thinking as as startup. Saying, “We don’t know where we’re going but we know where we are. We’re going to be open to creativity and willing to fail.” One of our slides in our presentation is a list of all the things that failed. And we embrace that and celebrate it because that’s where we learned and were able to hone and get to this place. And that place looks really different. We don’t have a mentorship program, and we don’t have events.

Bennett: We don’t have a job board.

Erwin: And that’s a lot of people’s bread and butter. That would be my biggest takeaway: Find out what makes this meaningful to you and your alumni and invest there. You don’t have to do everything, it’s impossible.