Finding Our Seat at the Party: Reflections from the Summer Institute in Alumni Relations

Kristin Simonetti (@KMSEditor) is a senior editor for CURRENTS magazine.

Four days of dawn-to-dusk training in alumni relations sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? Not when you have witty, insightful and quotable faculty members like the five who led the 2013 CASE Summer Institute in Alumni Relations in Burlington, Vt., Aug. 4-8. Here’s a selection from the conference’s symphony of wisdom—great advice for newcomers to the field and useful reminders for those who’ve been around a while.

“We don’t always have to hold the party, but we need to be at the party.” – Christopher Vlahos, associate vice president, alumni relations, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio

Every day, more graduates are forming their own communities outside the institution’s gates and alumni relations’ traditional purview. To stay relevant, alumni leaders must adapt. The 21st century alumni relations professional must:

  • Think strategically.
  • Be proactive instead of reactive.
  • Tailor programs and messages for specifically targeted groups.
  • Focus on quality instead of quantity.
  • Harness technology, but never lose the personal connection with alumni.

“If you use volunteers well, it’ll be the best part of your job. If you don’t, it’ll be the worst.” – David Flinchbaugh, assistant dean, development and alumni affairs, University of Maryland School of Social Work

A frequently overlooked aspect of volunteer management? Well-developed role descriptions for every position. It takes a lot of effort up front, but you’ll thank yourself later—especially if a volunteer doesn’t perform up to expectations. And don’t force alumni to fit those descriptions or create new jobs just because a graduate wants to help. When recruiting alumni for specific roles, ask yourself:

  • Is the person committed to the institution’s mission?
  • Does he/she have a hidden agenda?
  • What are this person’s skills and strengths?
  • Will he/she mesh with other volunteers and staff?

“Fundraising is not a dirty word, and if you’re not comfortable with that, perhaps advancement is not the place for you.” – Nicole Meehan, executive director of development, Loyola University Chicago

Alumni relations isn’t just about friendraising anymore. You should understand the difference among annual, major and planned gifts. You should know the priorities of your institution’s strategic plan. And you should be able to answer basic questions related to giving, such as:

  • What are the names of your directors of development, annual giving and planned giving?
  • Who are your regional gift officers?
  • How can alumni make gifts online, and how should you direct an offline gift?
  • What role is alumni relations expected to play in a campaign?

“‘Nonprofit’ doesn’t mean ‘lose money every year.'” – Todd Saucier, president and executive director, University of Maine Alumni Association

You’d be shocked how few professionals have zero clue about their budgets. Whether you’re the boss or not, clearly understand your income and expenditures. You don’t need to be a CPA, but taking a few simple steps can set you up for success. These include:

  • If you don’t know how to read an income statement, learn.
  • Ensure everything in the budget has a cost and a plan.
  • If you need to make a budget cut somewhere, drop an entire activity—not just a line item.
  • Don’t be afraid to have frank conversations with your supervisor about your organization’s finances.

“I can assure you, no one is coming back to campus to see Cindy Campanella.” – Cindy Campanella, assistant vice president, alumni relations, University of Delaware

Translation? It’s not about YOU, it’s about the ALUMNI. Use campus partners to connect graduates with the experiences that meant the most to them as students. For example, every member of Kelly McConnico‘s staff at Wake Forest University in North Carolina has contacts in the institution’s academic departments. Those relationships keep McConnico, WFU’s executive director of alumni services, informed about where faculty are traveling to conferences so she can connect those professors with alumni in the area.

Some keys to building strong partnerships across your college, university or school:

  • Keep the institution and its goals first.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Share information and resources—and not only when you need something from the partner.
  • Celebrate successes! Reward the investment of time and effort.

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