Be Intentional About Building Deeper Alumni Relationships

Tim Bograkos (@timbograkos) is the director of alumni engagement at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

Gone are the days when you could put together an event, such as a game watch party, and easily develop the kind of interaction you want with an alumni base. These gatherings may bring out the numbers, but they do little to advance connections with constituents who believe in supporting the educational mission of our institutions. Declining state support for public colleges and universities, increasing calls for accountability and greater integration into the institutional advancement model, have intensified the demand for more intentional approaches to alumni relations that attract alumni with serious interest in student and faculty support.

Give Value First

Many alumni are programmed to think that the only interaction they are going to have with their alma mater is a phone call asking them to donate. We all know that philanthropic investment is critical to our institutions, but we have to shift our mindset. One my favorite speakers, Gary Vaynerchuk, phrases it like this, “You have to be like a boxer who is a counter puncher. You have to jab, jab, jab and then throw the right hook.” In the higher education field,  this equates to give, give, give and then ask. Far too often, it seems to our alumni that we are just looking for donations—especially the farther away from campus you get. A common narrative from out-of-state alumni is that they only hear from the university is when someone calls to ask for money. We’ve worked hard to make sure that we’re developing and executing strategic events, especially in our out-of-state markets, that provide valuable engagement opportunities.  By featuring our deans, professors and research students as keynote speakers at university advancement events around the country, we’ve seen a continued increase in paid event attendance and an increase in understanding of how Michigan State is working to better educate and inspire students, tackle and solve global issues and become one of the world’s leading research universities.

The Depth is in the Context

The hardest part of engagement is figuring out the best ways of ensuring an institution’s voice is heard. We all live in a world of constant overload when it comes to content. The depth of your connection is increased when it’s based around context. What we’ve seen at Michigan State is good content doesn’t always inspire deep alumni connectedness.  By shifting our focus, we found that the depth of the alumni connection increases when the engagement mechanism is based around context. If you want to strengthen relationships and create depth, you have to be able to paint the picture of what’s currently happening and how the future is going to unfold. We’ve made a big push over the last 18 months at Michigan State to have our alumni communities champion service projects within their individual regions. Last year’s service day resulted in 125 locations completing 16,000 hours of community service. We provide them with all the content they need in terms of social media campaigns and marketing, day of event resources and management tools.  But the true power of the event comes from the people who reconnect with Michigan State—and connect with fellow Spartans around the idea of giving back.

Take Alumni Down the Path They Want to Travel

I can’t understate the value of listening and learning. My former college basketball coach, Tom Izzo, used to consistently remind us that you have to learn to listen and listen to learn. At its core, what we do in alumni relations offers alumni the opportunity to acknowledge and act on their passions by giving back to the university through the type of investment they are interested in making—whether time, money or something else—and not, for example, through our assumption that they might want to invest in a major or college unit within the university.  We aren’t leading people anywhere they aren’t interested in going, instead we want to help facilitate and guide them where they choose to engage with our institutions. Our role is to listen to their stories and find ways to add value. Often, alumni will tell you the details you need to know about their interests and passions during conversation—especially if you ask the right questions. It’s important that we don’t get caught taking a short-sided view of what WE want the result to be—especially if you are hoping to reengage an alum with their institution.

What strategies have you used to engage alumni at your institution? Share your experience in the comments.

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