How Harvard Business School Creates Organic Connections Between Students and Alumni

If running successful networking events and mentoring programs were as easy as making an introduction over email, the job of alumni relations and career services offices would be pretty simple. But it's vital that the connections we make between students and alumni not feel contrived.

Finding the line between artificial awkwardness and organic openness can be difficult.

Harvard Business School

Lindsay McConchie and Kathryn Tripp are Harvard Business School's associate and assistant directors of student & young alumni engagement, respectively.

We asked them to give us a preview of their CASE D1 conference panel, "Close Encounters: Creating Organic Connections Between Students and Alumni."

Why is it important to create organic connections between students and alumni? How do those organic connections differ from connections that aren't organic?

It is fundamentally important to create a space that fosters these mutually beneficial student:alumni connections. Outside of the construct of career and professional development (where many student:alumni connections traditionally take place in a graduate school), students experience the myriad benefits of the alumni network.

During HBS's MBA program, it’s challenging for anyone to imagine what life will be like one year, five years or twenty years from their graduation. Sitting down with an alumnus in a setting that encourages candor and provides a real life demonstration of what life after HBS can be like for the students is really powerful and even indirectly instructive. Students come to truly understand the alumni network, what it means to be an engaged alumnus, and the value proposition of being active within that network.

At the same time, alumni are able to reconnect with the school via current students. They get to experience what their alma mater is like today and how the common thread of HBS has evolved since their own graduation. Organic connections fostered in this way are very rare and special. We’ve learned that most other interaction between students and alumni at this point in the student experience is need-based (job searches, asking alumni to speak at conferences or in classes, etc.).

Organic connections provide space for both students and alumni to find far more commonalities and points of shared interest than would come with a more contrived grouping. This is not to say to that there isn’t tremendous benefit in career-focused student:alumni engagement, and we work with our Career office to support their efforts to connect students and alumni around job searching. We know that our Career office is far better equipped with extensive experience and knowledge than we are to help students find their career path.

What we hope to instill in students is a visceral understanding of the alumni network so they can see themselves in it, and as an active part of it. The added benefit is drawing alumni into the excitement of the student experience and reconnecting them to their time at HBS by offering them a real, meaningful opportunity to connect and provide their personal story.

How can we build institutional consensus to create programs that generate these organic connections?

Institutional consensus to any alumni engagement program is paramount. That said, it can be difficult to illustrate the value of engagement with traditional metrics and measurements.

Fortunately, the success of such programs ultimately speak for themselves.

Executing programs that connect students and alumni requires the efforts and collaboration of multiple departments. For us, we engage Development colleagues, the Admissions Office, Student and Alumni Clubs, and the Career and Professional Development Office. The programs have mutual benefit to Alumni Relations and all these departments in that they engage top prospects, aid in the Admissions yield efforts, connect student clubs and alumni clubs around shared interest, industry, and region, and support the goals of the Career office in helping students during and post HBS.

Multiple stakeholders across the institution become champions for the program and others like it because their benefactors (alumni or students) have provided such positive feedback about their experience and the connections they were able to make as a result.

For numbers and metrics, we do our best to create systems to capture qualitative data, like brief multiple choice surveys that can be aggregated into numeric data that tells a story of engagement and satisfaction with our programs. We also capture as much anecdotal feedback as possible. We’ve heard quotes like this one, from an alumnus who hosted a dinner for students a few years ago, that speak volumes about the value of these programs:

“Thank you for organizing this dinner. What a great idea this program is! The students are great; HBS continues to attract incredibly interesting people from around the world. I feel more connected to the school and will happily support this year's annual fund.”

We don’t know that we could offer any data point better than that in support of these programs!

What can we do to ensure that our programs actually create organic connections?

Setting the stage for these gatherings is really helpful. We like to communicate to all parties involved that the point of their meeting is simply to connect without any formal agenda.

So much can come from these organic, unstructured gatherings without the School imposing an agenda. Some hosts do request introductory talking points to get conversation started but those requests are rare. For the vast majority, people are really excited and grateful for the opportunity to simply connect. Our mission is to provide the time and the place.

Engaging the right internal stakeholders is really important. If you are working with Development frontline fundraisers, or if you ARE a Development frontline fundraiser, ensuring that you have the right alumni host means everything.

This is a cultivation opportunity. Alumni are excited to volunteer their time and are often willing to answer an email with a request like this. Additionally, many alumni are honored to be entrusted with the responsibility of embodying the alumni network to students. Setting alumni up for success is key.

Find Lindsay McConchie and Kathryn Tripp on LinkedIn.

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