A hackathon to write computer code for a new charity. Career advice from an astronaut. A visit to a major television studio to hear alumni media professionals discuss the future of their industry. These are just a few of the focused career-field events the Colgate Professional Networks have hosted. The 10 CPNs, representing different industries from real estate to digital business and technology, have inspired alumni to help fellow graduates and students keep up with today's career world and reimagine professional goals. And as enthusiasm for the 4-year-old program grows, so does the giving rate among participants.
The idea for this unique alumni career services program began after New York's Colgate University made a bold but challenging move: merging career services and alumni relations.
In the aftermath of the 2007–2009 economic recession, alumni, parent, and student demand for robust career support grew. By 2012, many companies had moved away from traditional recruitment methods, and my institution, like others, was increasingly asked to find students internships. Meanwhile, alumni interest in Colgate's class-year and regional get-togethers was declining. We took a hard look at the economic hurdles facing both students and alumni and decided to integrate the Center for Career Services into the Institutional Advancement Office, which houses alumni relations. The goal: to align career assistance with post-graduation engagement while building stronger alumni affinity.
Colgate Professional Networks launched in fall 2013 to encourage career exploration and growth among students and alumni at special events throughout the year. Organized by industry and interests, such as entrepreneurship, finance, and banking, CPNs also group alumni by complementary professional fields: Those who work in the education, nonprofit, and government spheres, for instance, form the Common Good Network, and those with public relations, advertising, and journalism careers make up the Marketing, Media, and Communications Network.
"Alumni really wanted to gather by industry because so many of these fields were seeing upheaval," says Murray Decock, Colgate's senior vice president for external relations, advancement, and initiatives.
When Michael Sciola came on board to execute the vision we had for a joint career services–alumni relations unit, he did a deep dive into alumni and employment data.
"Colgate's career center was underperforming," says Sciola, Colgate's associate vice president of institutional advancement and career initiatives, who had taken part in a comparable administrative reorganization at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "Students, parents, alumni, and advancement folks were all complaining about the lack of opportunities for leveraging our incredible alumni groups worldwide."
Sciola compiled data on alumni occupations, industries, job titles, giving history, and volunteer record to pinpoint the locations of the university's strongest career clusters. New York had a thriving real estate alumni cluster, and Boston boasted more alumni in health care than any other city. Information on recent graduate employment and job interests, both by category and geography, helped us determine career and location migration patterns.
"We have alumni everywhere—a majority of them in leadership positions," Sciola says, explaining that those alumni are instrumental in creating student internship opportunities. "We looked for hotspots with complementary industries."
Colgate initially created seven networks nationwide: Common Good; Real Estate; Health and Wellness; Finance and Banking; Digital Business and Technology; the Lawyers Association; and the Entrepreneur Network. In 2016, we added STEM; Consulting; and Marketing, Media, and Communications.
CPN staff developed four guidelines to determine which industries warranted a network. These criteria also help measure the success of each network and guide the creation of new opportunities.
Professional advancement: Does the network provide an opportunity for alumni to find professional mentors, learn industry trends, identify new employment leads, develop practical skills, and advance their professional and/or business success?
Brand advancement: Does the network advance Colgate's public brand by increasing its visibility and highlighting its innovative contributions to the world?
Student success: Does the network provide mentorship, internships and job shadowing, and hiring opportunities to aid students' entry into professional industries?
Support for Colgate: Does the network communicate Colgate's role in fostering alumni-student relationships and inspire them to support the institution's philanthropic and service needs?
Don't be afraid to look to the past in planning for success. A 2011 New York City real estate event provided the blueprint for the start of the CPNs. In November 2011, a group of volunteers found a space in Midtown, identified industry speakers, and helped create an email invite list. About 85 alumni participated, making it one of Colgate's highest-attended events in the area and demonstrating that an engaged group was eager to connect.
In 2013, we used the real estate event as a model to create CPNs' inaugural programs. The Health and Wellness Network met in Boston and featured a keynote by alumnus Ken Sands, senior vice president for health care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In San Francisco, the Digital Business and Technology Network hosted a panel of tech experts from Google and other companies.
In these early days, CPN funding was cobbled together from career services, alumni relations, and advancement. Staff in those departments, along with a core group of 100 volunteers, planned and managed the CPN events. But as the programs became more popular—the number of events grew from just eight in 2013 to 50 in 2016—it became clear that the CPNs needed full-time administration and long-term funding. As a result, staff from both career services and annual giving took on focused CPN roles, and in 2016 the program secured institutional funding.
The investment was worth it: By 2016, the average CPN event attendance was double that of traditional club events. Additionally, the giving rate among those who have attended a CPN event has increased by nearly 40 percent. Attendance has also skyrocketed compared to club outings, with just 668 alumni attending traditional club events in 2014 compared to 1,014 at CPN events in 2017.
"It's a virtuous cycle to build bridges," Decock says. "Students are grateful for the opportunities, so they're more likely to engage and give back, and our alumni see that we're staying current with the changing world of work and the global economy, and they want to stay connected."
So what makes an event successful?
"Any topic when we can hit on a national conversation is really popular," says Jillian Cole, CPN's associate director. A 2016 Health and Wellness and STEM network event in San Francisco, for one, focused on cancer immunotherapy, a newsworthy topic that drew strong interest. Such joint events allow attendees to expand their network in unexpected ways.
Other current events programming has tackled such topics as how social media is changing journalism and how U.S. refugee policy is affecting global migration. Alumni propose event ideas, and we also create programs based on student interest in a career field. While the CPN events don't follow a static structure, we've generally found success with these formats:
Assessing each event is key to planning even more valuable programming. A flashy idea might excite people, but to sustain engagement, a program needs to continue to add value, says Jennifer Stone, Colgate's assistant vice president for institutional advancement, director of annual giving and professional networks.
She points to an online platform piloted in 2016 to connect alumni and students in industry-focused virtual booths and allow them to speed-network via one-to-one text chat sessions. About 300 people registered, but just 200 logged in. "We thought it was the game-changer to engage a wider variety of people," Stone says. "We did a few other events that year, and each time participation declined. They just never took off."
One of the key moments of each CPN event comes at the end: A staff member, student, or volunteer takes the stage to ask alumni to give back to their alma mater. The request has three parts: An appeal for financial contributions to Colgate's summer internship program, which compensates students who take unpaid internships; a request that attendees share internship opportunities with Colgate to help us build a pipeline of qualified candidates; and an ask for alumni to contribute time and expertise by mentoring students. On average, nearly 80 percent of CPN participants make an annual gift to Colgate.
"I think that's what makes the CPNs so powerful," Stone says. "Alumni can give back in so many ways outside of financial support, and by offering events that have value, both in terms of networking and content, it really has grown affinity for the university."
Daniel DeVries is the media relations director at Colgate University.