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When Your Alumni Council Is Wilting
When Your Alumni Council Is Wilting

Is your alumni board unfocused and overworked? Here’s how one independent school cast some sunlight upon its stagnant council and cultivated a mission-driven, thriving group.

By Jenni Beadle , Jennifer Jung


David Senior



No mission. No direction.

In 2011, the Alumni/ae Council at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in Minnesota was nearly nonexistent. Other than holding monthly meetings and a lackluster fundraising phonathon, the council sponsored no programs or events; it did not follow its bylaws and had no reporting structure or processes for recruiting new members. Most of the 11 council members were suffering from volunteer fatigue, particularly the president. Few members attended meetings, which were unproductive. The council frequently discussed the need to recruit new members but never developed an action plan.

In short, it was time for a change.

Shaping a new culture

Most institutions would love to improve the effectiveness of their alumni board or council, whether through a simple tuneup or a major overhaul. SPA's Alumni/ae Council is now a highly visible, productive organization whose events and initiatives have increased alumni participation, improved morale, and made an impact on the institution and its students. Here's what the advancement staff learned.

1. Listen before acting. When Jenni Beadle became SPA's alumni/ae relations and giving manager in 2011, she quickly realized that the council lacked purpose.

St. Paul Academy for boys and Summit School for girls merged in 1969, affecting everything from the school's curriculum and classroom facilities to its demographics and culture. Alumni and alumnae were skeptical of the administration and the changes in the early days and had formed the council to voice their concerns. Membership was a prestigious badge of honor.

Forty-two years later, SPA was one of the top K-12 independent schools in Minnesota. The council, however, remained stuck in the past. Though the most virulent strains of alumni distrust of the administration had long since disappeared, the council was stagnant.

However, Beadle didn't rush right in and make changes. She spent the first six months attending meetings, listening to members' concerns, and identifying allies to help change the council. She wanted the group to see her as their staff liaison, providing support and guidance but not leadership. It was important that members did not think she was a co-president or pushing her own agenda. When the president couldn't attend, Beadle asked other council members to run the meeting.

It was also important to show that she could help move the council in a new direction. She let council leaders make decisions, create goals, and generate ideas. She did not crush impossible concepts. If someone suggested asking the president of the United States to attend a reunion breakfast, she listened, acknowledged the idea, and at a future meeting gave concrete reasons why that option wasn't feasible. Treating all members fairly and giving them a voice—even when their ideas couldn't happen—allowed Beadle to win the trust of even the most skeptical council members.

2. Find a good leader. Is your alumni board president burned out? Has she been in charge for too long, or does she have too little time to devote to the job? Whatever the challenge, recruiting and selecting the right leader is key to a successful and thriving council.

The SPA council needed new leadership, including a president who could help redefine the purpose and mission. In January 2012, Beadle met with the president to discuss the council's future. He offered to step down, and they worked on recruiting the next president: a young member who was a positive, quiet leader on both the council and in the community. The next president was not only capable of leading the organization but she also embraced the school's mission and culture.

3. Recruit the right members. Evaluating your organizational membership is a next good step. Are your members happy? Do they understand and support the institution's direction? Populating the council with alumni you want won't happen instantly, but slowly recruiting members who will help change the culture can work wonders.

Changing outdated rules can help with that culture shift. In the case of SPA, the council felt compelled to have representation from every decade and no more than one member per class year. But recruiting members who wanted to serve was far more valuable than the year they graduated, so when one member suggested three new alumni—one classmate and two others from her decade—the council decided to try it. Those three members brought new ideas and excitement, served as committee chairs, and became good role models for attendance and enthusiasm.

When you find engaged council members, cultivate that relationship so that they want to stay or move into a greater leadership role. When Jennifer Jung, who has worked with the SPA Alumni/ae Council since 2013 and is now director of alumni/ae programs, notices that a newer council member never misses meetings, volunteers at events, and completes the committee tasks outside of meetings, she thanks that member and discusses future leadership opportunities. Identify upcoming stars and invest time in those volunteers.

It can be tempting to remove unmotivated members, but managing different personalities is vital to anyone who works with volunteers. If a member is continually negative or skeptical, learn why they feel this way. Their feelings may be valid, and they likely want reassurance that they are being heard. That said, some members may like to complain and won't help the organization move forward. As the council began to thrive, the negative members realized on their own that they could either adjust to the new culture or step down.

Increasing productivity

So now you've got a good foundation in place, with a new leader and the right council members. How do you keep them happy and focused? By developing effective strategies.

Committees and bylaws, oh my! Once the SPA council had new leadership and several new enthusiastic members, they spent months rewriting the bylaws. Their first big task was creating a mission statement, one that outlined the council's purpose and aligned with the mission of the school. Members quickly agreed that volunteerism to both the school and the alumni community should be a key part of the mission.

Members also formed three committees: fundraising, events, and volunteerism. The committees encouraged ownership, creativity, and action and gave the council a strong direction. Council members understood, based on what committee they served, what would be required of them. These changes drastically improved morale and energy.

Make meetings make sense. SPA council meetings had been held at the same time every month, but attendance was often low. Meetings were moved to days and times when the majority indicated they could attend, alternating each month between morning and afternoon meetings. A dial-in option was also offered, which has not been abused—only members who can't leave work or are traveling use this option.

The council also invites students or employees from other departments to attend. Members especially look forward to visits from the college counseling staff, who report on the senior class college application process and how it continues to evolve. They enjoy checking the list to see how many students will attend their respective alma maters.

Create events they can own. The council is now responsible for a few annual events that have become traditions.

The Alumni/ae Council Speaker Series, proposed by a council member, meets two needs of the alumni community: a professional networking event and the opportunity to hear from alumni in the prime of their career. The council's goal for the first event: 50 alumni attendees. Registration exceeded 75. Each event has had at least 70 attendees; the media panel in fall 2015 hit a record 120 registrants. The council charges $10 per person for admission and hosts the events at a private club in downtown Minneapolis that is convenient for city professionals.

The other signature event is a day of giving. The goal was to increase alumni participation through peer-to-peer solicitation, focusing on donors who are difficult to reach through traditional channels such as institutional mailings, emails, and phone calls. Council members do much of the marketing and personal solicitations for the event, using a crowdfunding webpage to distinguish it as an alumni council event, rather than an institutional one. The Day of Giving has been successful: Almost 30 percent of the alumni who contributed in 2016 were either brand-new or lapsed donors.

Celebrate and recognize volunteers. Don't forget to thank your volunteers. Alumni are proud of their alma mater and the work they are doing to make it a better place. Your council will be more energetic if you acknowledge members' contributions.

Simple gestures can go a long way. At events, we identify council members on name tags and publicly thank them. We've added the "Alumni/ae Council Corner" to the SPA magazine with a letter from the president and a list of the members. Jung sends handwritten thank you notes to every council member throughout the year, including Valentine's Day, Volunteer Appreciation Week in April, and at the end of the academic year. When members leave the board, they receive a pair of SPA embossed pilsner glasses.

A continuous evolution

Once you've made changes, continue to evaluate your board or council. Like any good organization, your council will evolve and shift as it grows—and so will your priorities.

Success brings more challenges. It was exciting to see new energy on the council, but it also led to an unexpected problem: too much interest. After one successful alumni event, five people asked about joining the council. Jung worried that too many members would make the organization unmanageable, so with input from the council, she developed a policy to cap membership at 20. This allows the organization to be small enough for everyone to have a voice and a role but large enough to achieve notable goals.

Ensure the new policies are the best ones. A few years after the council created three committees, Jung re-evaluated them. A gap between ideas and action still remained, and much of the work fell to the same members. Jung suggested that each committee pick a single annual objective to focus on.

This especially helped the volunteerism committee. Rather than aimlessly brainstorming new volunteer opportunities, the committee focused on revitalizing Class Agents, alumni charged with keeping in touch with their classmates and updating them on school information and events. The council reviewed the roster, recruited new agents to classes, and developed a better line of communication between the agents and council members. Class Agents are a natural feeder for council membership, and the agents now serve as champions for council initiatives.

Develop a leadership pipeline. Another change was the president-elect position. This person spends one year shadowing the current president and learning the responsibilities. This gives the council peace of mind that it will continue to have a strong leader and gives the president-elect ample time to ask questions and feel comfortable stepping into the leadership position.

Slowly, slowly, change will come

It's not a quick or easy fix to shift the culture of an alumni council that's become unproductive, but it's definitely worth it. As one council member recently said, the organization has gone from a "management burden to a valued strategic partner." A thriving, invested alumni leadership team can engage new volunteers and donors, implement change, recruit new leaders, and spur growth.

About the Authors Jenni Beadle

Jenni Beadle was the alumni/ae relations and giving manager from 2011–2013 at St. Paul Academy and Summit School and is now the director of annual giving there.

Jennifer Jung

Jennifer Jung is the director of alumni/ae programs and has worked with the St. Paul Academy and Summit School Alumni/ae Council since 2013.

 

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