Want to engage international alumni? Here’s how to customize your programs to meet their needs.
©2013 Beppe Giacobbe c/o theispot.com
For nearly 10 years I've been an American expatriate living in Europe. I spent six years in Germany, and since 2010, I've lived with my family in Barcelona, Spain. My wife is Italian. My son was born in Germany and my daughter in Spain. We are multilingual, and we are global.
I'm also a proud, dues-paying alumnus of the University of California, Los Angeles. And as director of international alumni for ESADE business and law schools in Barcelona, I have much in common with the people I serve, many of whom live internationally.
My life and realities differ from those of my fellow alumni in the United States. That personal experience has informed my work, especially my dealings with international students and graduates. It's a fast-growing and increasingly important community at ESADE. Nearly 90 percent of our alumni from the past five years who live and work outside of Spain are non-Spanish natives. Since 2006, the number of overall ESADE alumni living abroad has risen from almost 2,000 to more than 9,600.
Through my volunteer work with CASE Europe, I know ESADE isn't unique in experiencing this kind of international student and alumni growth. We're not alone in investing significant resources in engaging and building relationships with this group of constituents. At the same time, I've also noticed that many of these institutions adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy for engaging international alumni. Simply adding alumni chapters in other countries won't lead to the engagement results these institutions seek. What works for graduates in Germany may not work for alumni living in New York City. Whether a graduate lives in Paris, Texas, or Paris, France, your alumni relations strategy should reflect the needs and realities of graduates who live in different countries and often experience different cultures and dynamics.
About a decade ago, ESADE embarked on a strategic plan to increase its profile among international business schools. Harnessing the power of alumni in more than 100 nations became a top institutional priority as we worked to build and shape the institution's global brand. A thriving international network of alumni ambassadors helps an institution recruit top students within various countries. International alumni can mentor and advise students about career opportunities abroad or partner with them to start business ventures. Alumni abroad can open the doors of their companies to internship- or job-seeking students and graduates, leading to strong partnerships between corporations and colleges or universities.
It's critical, therefore, to understand and relate to international audiences and treat them as important stakeholders. Keeping ESADE alumni who live in Spain engaged is one thing. Encouraging graduates who live outside the country to stay involved is another. The experiences of alumni living abroad can be very different from native graduates. Just as companies need to listen and adapt quickly to their customers to remain globally relevant and competitive, colleges and universities must expend significant effort to engage their international audiences.
One of my first tasks when I joined ESADE Alumni in April 2011 was to assess and enhance the institution's 5-year-old international chapters network. I spent several months talking with various constituents, including international alumni, chapter boards, students, staff, and administrators, to understand their ESADE experiences and their motivations for potentially joining the ESADE international alumni network. I also expanded our international alumni relations team to four staff members, and we implemented a strategic engagement plan using the Model Chapters Program and other elements outlined in the CASE handbook Alumni Relations: A Newcomer's Guide to Success.
The ESADE Alumni staff gives each chapter clear goals in four areas of programming:
• ESADE brand awareness: Showcase ESADE in a positive light in the community through endeavors such as public service and student recruiting activities.
• Career and life networking: Host events to provide graduates continuing education, skills development, and professional networking assistance.
• Resource development: Encourage alumni to bring financial (fundraising) and nonfinancial (membership in the alumni association) resources to ESADE.
• Connection to ESADE: Hold events to foster social relationships among graduates in the chapter areas and an affinity for the institution.
We offer each chapter communications support as well as limited funding to help finance its programs. From there, we want the chapters to take the lead, and we empower our chapter presidents and boards to create event programming, select venues, recruit speakers and presenters, and operate the programs on their own. It's a partnership model that has alumni interests at heart.
Our Model Chapters Program has existed for just more than a year, and already we're seeing positive changes. We're working with 10 new chapter presidents worldwide, and we've recruited 30 new chapter board members, all of whom have energized ESADE alumni in their regions. Chapter board members have also reached out to fellow alumni to find venues for events or speakers for programs.
Our chapter in Germany provides a good example of how we've applied the Model Chapters Program concept to international alumni relations. When the Germany chapter formed in 2006, it attracted a brief swell of interest and turnout for events, but the energy began to wane. When the ESADE Alumni staff conducted one of its regular chats with chapter board members and alumni about events, we learned that alumni in Germany wanted programming that focused on entrepreneurship, as several alumni had relocated to the country to start businesses. We passed this feedback along to our alumni leaders in Munich and Berlin who then partnered with other organizations to sponsor networking opportunities and panel discussions about the mechanics of entrepreneurship. Attendance at these events more than doubled compared to prior functions.
Our U.K. chapter based in London offers another successful example. Unlike the Germany chapter, the U.K. chapter had continuous interest and activity, but the chapter president felt overwhelmed and wanted the chapter's board to better engage young alumni. Our staff worked with the president to recruit new members for the board, including young alumni and graduates of our MBA and master's in management programs—populations that account for much of our alumni growth in London. These new board members, working in concert with the chapter president, enhanced our U.K. programming immediately, tapping into theirprofessional networks to secure sponsorship of an event by Goldman Sachs, a speaking engagement with a CEO and founder of a successful European-based travel business, and an event at the home of the Spanish ambassador to the U.K. in May.
Measuring our success remains a challenge. This is true for alumni professionals everywhere, particularly those working at institutions where resources are limited. We measure return on investment through attendance, particularly how many first-time attendees show up at events and how many of those alumni return to future programs. Much of the feedback we've received is anecdotal, gleaned through conversations with chapter leaders and individual alumni. For example, an alumnus sent us this email: "I had the opportunity to meet different ESADE generations from different courses and programs, but all with the same collaborative spirit. ... I hope other alumni events around the globe can be [as] high-quality and interesting like this, enhancing the potential of ESADE Alumni."
During the first year of our Model Chapters Program (2011–12), attendance at our international chapter events rose more than 20 percent, and programs sponsored by chapters outside of Spain more closely aligned with our institutional priorities. Twenty-eight percent of chapter programs focused on skills and career development compared with 12 percent the previous year. More than 15 percent of chapter events and programs supported ESADE's international recruiting efforts. Less tangibly, but no less importantly, our alumni staff senses a renewed energy and drive coming from our chapters.
The suggestions I'm making may not seem innovative, but when trying to engage international alumni, many institutions make a common mistake: They copy the model of local, native-country chapters and apply it abroad. Programming must be relevant; local chapters need to identify the needs of their constituencies, then develop and implement plans in partnership with the larger alumni organization. International alumni relations is about recognizing an important population that wants to be connected but often feels disengaged.
Whether an institution wants to expand its global profile, strengthen its international admissions efforts, internationalize career services, take its fundraising efforts abroad, or just connect across borders, alumni are willing to help. But without a concerted effort to engage international alumni, many institutions will come up empty.
John Arboleda is the director of international alumni affairs for ESADE Alumni in Barcelona, Spain.
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