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Aligning the Satellites
Aligning the Satellites

Do your cross-campus alumni engagement and communications feel like they’re coming from another planet? Maybe it’s time for a campuswide alumni relations strategy.

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty


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Robert Kayganich



Cross-campus alumni relations is a lot like space flight. You may have several satellites—your unit communicators and alumni and development officers—receiving and transmitting information with alumni, but without regular maintenance and care, you could be losing valuable data.Satellite illustration

Four Types of Cross-Campus Alumni Relations

Still building the spaceship

Your institution is starting from scratch on cross-campus alumni communications, and your alumni relations team needs to identify stakeholders and determine a strategy.

Pros: You can be a pioneer and craft a cohesive alumni relations strategy without the baggage of "how it's always been done."

Cons: Some trial and error may be needed before reaching the right balance in good communications.

Time to introduce the mother ship

Your institution uses decentralized alumni relations strategies. Each college or unit is in charge of how, when, and why it communicates with alumni—with varying levels of success. The alumni association sometimes hears about unit events or communications after the fact.

Pros: Unit communicators can develop close relationships with alumni and use more personalized messaging.

Cons: The institution's brand and vision could get lost or muddled without a cohesive message. The central alumni office might also miss opportunities for donor and volunteer cultivation at a larger level.

Empower your satellites

Your institution relies on a centralized alumni relations strategy. The central office keeps an iron grip on the alumni database. Colleges and units don't do much alumni communication on their own—in fact, they're afraid to. The central office is the gatekeeper for alumni relations, but you could extend your reach by working with your unit counterparts, who may have strong ties to alumni. Your college may be rapidly growing or newer than its cohorts, and many units may not have the bandwidth for their own alumni communications.

Pros: More streamlined communication with alumni.

Cons: May be missing out on new and creative ideas from unit and department staff.

Hovering in a hybrid craft

Your institution is a mix of the previously listed scenarios, depending on the day, week, or year.

Pros: Your model is adaptable and flexible depending on your institution's needs.

Cons: Messaging and procedures might be confusing without a consistent plan.

 


 Satellite illustration

See if any of these situations sound familiar:

Your alumni association staff emails alumni the same week that athletics sends out its annual appeal. A faculty member hosts a group of former marching band members, but no one takes pictures.

The challenges of campuswide alumni engagement can be tricky, and without a strategy, you can duplicate efforts or miss opportunities. The result? All your efforts are sinking into a black hole.

Does your central alumni office know how your campus units, departments, and offices talk with alumni? Are faculty and staff informing you of interactions with alumni? Do they understand your alumni association's goals and messages?

If you cannot answer these questions—or you don't like the answers—then it might be time to reassess cross-campus collaboration. Here are some ways to energize and revitalize your alumni engagement efforts.

1. Do your homework.

When the alumni association at the University of Massachusetts Amherst first toyed with starting a coordinated alumni communications effort six years ago, it did its homework—and then some. Over three months, advancement leaders interviewed more than two dozen officials at peer institutions about how they coordinated alumni communications.

Based on those conversations, UMass Amherst developed a more centralized communications model to capitalize on more opportunities and create a cohesive universitywide message. "We'd find out that a certain department celebrated a reunion or milestone and think, ‘Wow, that would have made a great feature story in our newsletter,'" says Elena Lamontagne, director of alumni communications and marketing for the UMass Amherst Alumni Association. The university was also concerned that too many email messages would end up spamming alumni. It was time for less—but more consistent-messaging.

The team centralized email communications first. The alumni association acts as a sort of communications clearinghouse, Lamontagne says, working with units to send out alumni correspondence and suggesting different ways to distribute information, such as a story in the alumni magazine or a blog post. Units and departments use an online system to request alumni contact lists and schedule news broadcasts.

As the transition played out, Lamontagne's team encountered concern from unit communicators, who were worried that the new system would affect their brand and message. Staff also wondered: Will we have easy and quick access to alumni lists? What kind of technical expertise will we need to use the online system? What kind of training and support will be available?

The team met with campus communication partners to discuss concerns. "I truly feel that individual meetings were key to the successful launch of this program," Lamontagne says. "It took a fair amount of time, but it was well worth the investment."

Now that the communications model is in place, UMass is looking to further strengthen alumni engagement across campus by forming the Campus Alumni Relations Council. The group will coordinate alumni relations and engagement efforts for student recruitment and outreach, mentoring, volunteerism, and regional and affinity alumni networks.

2. Survey your cross-campus communicators.

Carrie Combs spent the first six months of her job listening. As the newly appointed director of advancement relations at James Madison University in Virginia, she met with various alumni communicators, faculty chairs, and advancement officers and found that some departments were communicating with their alumni independently of the advancement office, and others weren't sure where to start.

The first step Combs, along with Director of Alumni Relations Ashley Privott, took was to let these stakeholders know how the advancement office could assist in their alumni outreach efforts. This not only helped to "build trust and build relationships," Combs says, "but also to see what some of the current challenges and needs were."

The second step Combs took was to survey staff and faculty on their perceptions and knowledge of the services her team provides and ask whether they had worked with the alumni and development staff in the past. She was surprised to find that many faculty members didn't realize her office was willing to share updated alumni contact information.

Combs and Privott noticed common themes in the questions they received from schools and departments: How could they engage alumni through social media? What's the best way to manage their alumni boards? So Combs set up different workshops around topics of interest, such as planning memorable alumni events and creating worthwhile networking opportunities.

So far, participation has been strong—nearly 60 people attended workshops in the first year—and Combs is excited by the potential for more. "Great conversations were happening," she says. "The faculty were hungry for partnerships across campus."

3. Sorry, but yes—more meetings.

No one needs yet another meeting, but regular face-to-face communication is still the best way to keep up good relationships with staff across campus who work with alumni. For more than a decade, a coordinating council of alumni communicators around the Oklahoma State University Stillwater campus has met quarterly to report on their alumni-related activities. Once a year, these stakeholders also gather for a half-day retreat.

"It seems to be the only location where these individuals can network," says Chase Carter, director of marketing and communications at the OSU Alumni Association. "They get a lot of ideas from each other on how they're communicating and engaging alumni. One of the colleges may talk about a new idea, and several more may try it the next year."

Meeting with staff and faculty who talk with alumni can also help build alliances, especially when these employees are not direct reports. Make sure that you're sharing useful information with your campus partners, such as key messages, logo guidelines, social media strategies, detailed style guides that cover the institution's brand, and more. The key is to extend, rather than to limit, the reach of cross-campus units.

4. Faculty are your best friends.

A robust alumni communications strategy must include faculty. Professors and deans often host alumni at events and speaking engagements, but professors might not know or remember to inform alumni association staff of these activities.

James Madison University has tried to tap into those relationships. With more than 120,000 alumni at JMU, "we could not get by without staff and faculty help," Combs says. "Faculty members often have the best and closest relationships with alumni. We want to support them so we're all successful." (For more on enlisting faculty as communicators and marketers, see "Meet Your New Marketing Team: The Faculty" on page 15.)

In 2015, when JMU kicked off a comprehensive fund­raising campaign, the university focused on improving advancement work across campus. Faculty and staff were eager to engage alumni but lacked the budget or event planning skills to succeed. To combat that challenge, the alumni association started the Advancement Engagement Grant Project at JMU. Departments could apply for small grants to support alumni engagement activities such as setting up mentoring programs, helping with alumni event planning, and developing a coordinated communications plan for engaging alumni.

Funds were minimal to start—$5,000 total the first year—but the resulting benefits have been numerous, Combs says.

In the program's first year, the alumni association received 22 grant proposals and funded seven—from helping send out a postcard about the School of Education's social media presence to expanding the School of Communication's career conference to include a networking lunch and new alumni speakers. Staff also learned about the kinds of activities faculty wanted help with and targeted workshops around those topics.

5. Offer swag.

Sometimes the best way to ensure faculty will tell you about alumni visits and events is to entice them with goodies. At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Caitlin Halloran Edwards, assistant director of alumni relations, creates gift bags for units and departments who host alumni visitors. They consist of a thank you note, a chocolate bar with a campus building on it, branded pens and notepads, a beloved local brand of potato chips, wireless internet information, a walking map, and a list of coffee bar hours.

Edwards thought the academic units might need help with planning events, but they really wanted the gift bag. The alumni relations office started offering the gift bags two years ago and made 43 the first year; Edwards anticipates making about 60 this academic year.

"Now people let me know when alumni are coming to campus," Edwards says. "Just the other week, someone called to say they were bringing nine alumni back to campus. They didn't need the gift bag—they just thought they should let me know." Mission accomplished.

6. Share your software with academic units.

At OSU, many units lack the manpower to design and send their own emails to alumni, Carter says. So within the past five years, the alumni association has trained individual units to use its email software for free.

"In the past, units would submit the text to us, and then we would create the email and send it out for them," Carter says. "Now they can create emails entirely on their own, and we work with them to schedule the delivery."

Broken down by numbers, this training sounds even more impressive. In one year, the eight units that Carter's team works with conducted 481 individual email campaigns, for a total of 1.9 million emails. "Those are 481 campaigns that the alumni association did not have to assist them in creating, only scheduling," Carter says.

The system also helps keep alumni contact lists up to date. OSU's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences used to send out a weekly e-newsletter using an antiquated listserv service, and any email updates made to the listserv were not carried over to the alumni association's database. With the new system, the center doesn't worry about updating addresses, because the data is refreshed every morning.

Finding the right fit

Whether your alumni communications is centralized, decentralized, or a combination of the two, the key is communicating with alumni in a streamlined way that does not overwhelm them.

"Our priority is to provide the best possible experience for our alumni," Lamontagne says. "They want to be informed and kept abreast of news and events, and we have the duty to present that information in the best possible way."

Once you've found a strategy that works, stick with it. Remember to keep your cross-campus lines of communication clear—and maybe the mailboxes will clear up, too.

About the Author Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Leah Kerkman Fogarty is a writer and editor living in Northern Virginia. She has covered nonprofit education topics her entire career.

 

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