CASE DV/VI Preview: "The Lost Generations: The Essential Steps to Connecting Alumni Back to Your Organization"

University of Michigan's College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts

Many advancement offices give up on soliciting alumni who have been unengaged for decades, but not Chelsea Knowles. Knowles is Regional Director of Development for the Western US at University of Michigan's College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts.

We asked Knowles to give us a preview of her CASE DV/VI Conference session, "The Lost Generations: The Essential Steps to Connecting Alumni Back to Your Organization."

How can we effectively reach out to alumni who Have been unengaged for years or decades?

Know your audience—find out where they are and what they have been doing before trying to contact. In addition, consider how to work with generational and geographical norms. I remember as a novice fundraiser being very ineffective communicator by sending handwritten notes to 30–40 years out on the West Coast. Today, my focus area is the Bay Area—I am primarily use email as the main method of contact; LinkedIn Messaging being second, and I keep the messaging clear and concise.

What challenges do we face in doing so? And what opportunities?

Data and the "time gap" are the two biggest challenges. We will never be able to contact someone if we do not have their right contact information. The time gap between graduation and when the first personal contact from the university is made can play a huge role in how someone might respond. Most of the time, people are happy to hear in a personal way from their university, other times, you would think I was the telemarketer that called right as the family sat down to dinner.

I think there are so many opportunities once you hurdle though some of the major barriers—alumni engagement through either one's time, talent or treasure are all such vital assets to an institution. I love seeing the progress made with alumni who were a bit prickly at first and now respond to an email from me within minutes. I am in the business of relationships; my role sometimes is to make people fall in love with their alma mater again.  Some of the best alumni I have worked with were those who were difficult to contact.


Find out how Switchboard can help you engage your alumni.


Can you provide some examples of your own outreach? How have you made your efforts a success?

As a  fundraiser, my job is to make the connection between personal philanthropy and passion. Prep work for the actual cold email or phone call can actually be the most important step in the whole discovery process. We are being constantly bombarded with messaging; something that is a bit more personal will help elicit that much desired response.

I am a big fan of using LinkedIn in getting to know my alumni better. Odds are, one will update their LinkedIn profile with new job and city info before he or she will update his or her alma mater. By using strategies to communicate more effectively, I have been able  to secure visits with very successful alumni or reach a target market better.