Reshaping Alumni Culture at Michigan State University

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

The Michigan State University Alumni Association is in the midst of moving from a dues-paying model to a donations model. This fundamental shift has provided the alumni team the opportunity to reshape our culture to one we believe is critical for the future of MSU.

The foundation of our dues-paying model was one of quid pro quo. You gave us your membership dues and we were expected to provide you with a variety of benefits in exchange. After we announced the switch, conversations centered around how this change would benefit our alumni—including ways to give them the opportunity to support the campus programs and initiatives about which they are most passionate in lieu of paying membership dues.

We want the MSU Alumni Association to be a transformational organization and not a transactional one. We looked closely at our alumni engagement programming—including strategy, communication and implementation—through a mission-focused lens. For a culture shift to take place, we would need to change the way we operated. We are currently in the process of making a deeper investment in our engagement continuum, making a more comprehensive focus on discovery work and reevaluating our approach to programming from the ground up.

Refocusing Our LENS

For more than 60 years, MSU offered adult learning opportunities to alumni in mid-Michigan, near campus. Our personal and professional enrichment team knew that the time was right to expand and explore new platforms for distribution. The team created the Lifelong Enrichment for Spartans (LENS) program. The program works with campus and constituent partners to develop both in-person and online experiential learning opportunities.

For instance, the LENS program broadcast former president Bill Clinton’s presentation when he spoke on campus about the benefits and importance of public service in today’s world.

Clinton

The program also broadcast a presentation from  Clifton Wharton, Jr., president emeritus of MSU, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and the first African-American to become chairman and CEO of a major U.S. corporation, TIAA-CREF.

Wharton

These live stream opportunities came together through campuswide collaborations.  It required the work of individual college units, university advancement leaders, the university advancement events team, the alumni association and the president’s office.  In both cases, the LENS program was recognized as the best option for providing a high-quality production—giving our campus partners and friends a place to direct people who want to see the videos on demand.

Bring Sand to the Sandbox

We began to reevaluate each one of our major alumni markets. We took a concentrated look at who was living in each market—not just in a demographic breakdown of the entire alumni base but also at an individual level,  figuring out our top people in terms of capacity, engagement or attendance at MSU events. We looked at what they were currently doing within their careers and families, and how we could better engage them on their terms. What we found was that by taking a topical approach to engagement and programming, we could find the right way to bring value to individuals and the market. It also gave us the ability to use creative events to highlight some of the work happening on campus and get the right people in the room.

Gone are the days of simply holding an event in a market with the intention of measuring the outcome of that single experience. Now, all events are connected to a larger initiative with a clear plan of involving engaged audiences in other activities where they live or on campus. Successful outcomes aren’t evaluated solely by the number of attendees or gifts secured, but by the MSU Alumni Association’s ability to move alumni through the engagement continuum and show deeper involvement, physically or financially, with the university over time.

Attendees at a Spartan Women's series event

Attendees at a Spartan Women’s series event

An example of this intentional programming is the MSU Alumni Association’s Spartan Women series. On the surface, Spartan Women is a leadership event that convenes approximately 100 alumnae per experience in targeted markets for conversations on innovation, professional advancement, social activism and philanthropy. The event is part of a larger system and serves as a means to socialize alumnae to MSU’s MBA programs, executive education programs, the Spartan Women Giving Circle and the Spartan Women destination retreats lead by high-profile alumnae. On occasion, features from Spartan Women will carry through to the MSU Alumni magazine spotlights on leadership. By connecting these various programs, the series is branded effectively and can be leveraged for future initiatives, reducing the drag that can be created by continuously launching new initiatives in markets.

Shifting our focus to transformational alumni engagement has been fundamental to changing the existing culture of our alumni base. We’ve tried to take an innovative approach to engaging people and providing value to them.

At the end of the day, we’re finding the sandboxes where our constituents play and trying to add more sand to it.

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