Three Engagement Breakthroughs for 2018

Since joining Switchboard last year, I’ve seen the reaffirmation of three critical principles that drive successful alumni engagement. These golden rules apply to every type of alumni community—schools and universities, other non-profits, and corporate alumni networks alike. I’ve worked in alumni relations professionally since 1989, have blogged about alumni relations for 11 years, and have consulted on it for about 50 organizations in a dozen countries.

And through it all, these basic tenets have held true.

They’re the kind of things that sound obvious when you hear them. Mentioning these guidelines generates vigorous and sincere agreement from consulting clients, but scanning the profession, I see many organizations that ignore them in practice.

Embrace the goals described below, and you’ll measurably increase effective alumni engagement in 2018:

1. Listen to stakeholders, and shape engagement accordingly

Many alumni teams still see themselves as community Town Criers. They broadcast “one-to-many” messages in a way that worked before the web made everyone a potential publisher.

Don’t just broadcast one-way news. Digital communication is an entirely two-way street. By listening to your audience you will

  • be seen as a community partner, not a top-down controller;
  • learn what people care about and the problems they are trying to solve; and
  • find a rich source of expertise, influence, and support for institutional initiatives that alumni find relevant to their own lives.

Stony Brook University’s approach to alumni relations is a prime example of this strategy. Their alumni relations team gets more done by asking what people need first and acting second, both with other offices on campus and alumni themselves.

2. Support alumni who self-organize

Until very recently, we labeled alumni and student interaction as “official” or “unofficial.” The implication? If the institution didn’t initiate, sponsor, promote and host the activity, it didn’t count.

But the mindset is shifting, and yesterday’s fretful “Not invented here!” is giving way to shouts of “Look! A genuine community!” These grassroots communities are easier than ever for alumni to build, thanks in large part to technologies that connect people wherever they are.

Alumni and students who self-organize deserve

  • recognition for their loyalty;
  • credit for trying to solve their own problems; and
  • resources to enhance their efforts.

We wrote about about this approach to engagement on the Switchboard blog back in August.

3. Balance broader engagement with deeper engagement

Metrics have evolved. We have moved beyond merely “reaching as many alumni as possible.” Why? Because with shrinking staff time and budgets, plus growing alumni populations, reaching more people means engaging them less deeply.

Alumni communities benefit when already-engaged members are engaged even more deeply through follow up communication, volunteer opportunities and other acts that signal recognition of their commitment to the cause.
When you balance deeper engagement with wider engagement, you

  • increase the quality of the overall alumni experience;
  • acknowledge those who have already raised their hands and said, “I’m in!”; and
  • avoid cajoling or begging marginally engaged alumni to deepen their commitment.

Opportunities for deeper engagement will bring out those who truly want to participate. Oakland University’s “Leadership OU” program, for example, offers motivated students a way to be more deeply involved in their community and provides engaged alumni an opportunity to give back to their alma mater.

Adding even one more bullet point to our lists of goals for 2018 might be a tall order, but more likely than not, these three points are already present in those lists. Our job is to be sure we act on them in our work with alumni and student communities.