Rebekah Josefy (@bekahjo09) is coordinator of former student programs for The Association of Former Students at Texas A&M University.
You’ve likely heard the buzz about young alumni advisory councils and their benefits: how these councils provide an opportunity for graduates to volunteer and get involved, offer valuable insights to your alumni association, identify areas to improve engagement and, ultimately, bring energy and lively ideas to the table.
So, you’re interested in creating your own. Now what?
If you have high hopes but seem to have little direction, allow me to introduce you to the nitty gritty steps of starting a young alumni council:
- Establish governing by-laws and develop structure.
- Create mission statement and define goals and tangible outcomes.
- Identify how you will measure success.
These steps are, without a doubt, the most difficult process of forming a young alumni advisory council. Dedicate 30 minutes per day to them. I’m serious. Mark it on your calendar and set a daily reminder. If you can focus for short periods of time, slowly adding to your documents and refining the details, I promise you’ll start seeing progress after a month.
At The Association of Former Students at Texas A&M University, our young alumni council is an elected body of former students who have graduated within the last 10 years. Their mission is to promote and enhance the values and vision of our university through professional development, community service, networking and philanthropy. We have three committees (clubs, marketing/communications and engagement/student traditions) with 38 total members.
Launching a Council
Take the time to deliberate what you intend to achieve by forming a council. The purpose of your young alumni council comes down to the needs of your individual organization, not necessarily what other university’s alumni associations are doing. Take some time to benchmark but don’t get caught up in trying to make your program look like a replica of an existing one. Maybe you don’t have the staff support for a 50 member council but you feel comfortable taking on 5. Or it’s possible that for the first few years, your council operates remotely rather than meeting on campus. At the end of the day, any outlet that allows you to receive feedback from young alumni regarding your organizational programming will be a useful starting point.
When you begin your daily planning, write down 3 questions at the beginning of your workday that you want to have specific answers before you go home. How many members will our council have? What level of internal support from our staff will be available to them? How often will we meet? (That “eat the elephant one bite at a time” adage is perfectly relevant here.)
Strengthening an Existing Council
If you’re already managing a young alumni advisory council, how do you strengthen it? I’ve found Mike Ditkoff’s “The 27 Best Practices of High Performing Volunteer Organizations” guide helpful. Here are my three favorite principles from it:
- Enthusiastically acknowledge successes, especially small wins. I can’t stress this enough. To keep motivation high among your council volunteers, take the time to celebrate every little thing you possibly can. In the early stages, it may be hard to provide that instant gratification that millennial volunteers are seeking and a lot of projects are going to feel primarily long-term. Get your staff and your leadership to lean into acknowledging any measurable milestone to keep the enthusiasm at a strong level. Did you have higher attendance on your monthly conference call? Celebrate it. Did a particular committee demonstrate great teamwork? Recognize them.
- Even when you are stressed or behind deadline, take the time to make sure your emails have warmth. This is crucial advice if you primarily communicate via email with your volunteers. Your regular updates with instructions and announcements can come across super bland. Try to season it up a bit and remind the people on the receiving end of the email that you know, not only that they are humans, but also that they are people with whom you have an established relationship. Re-read your email before you send it and if it sounds too much like Charlie Brown’s teacher speaking, go back through and try to make it feel more like it’s coming from Peppermint Patty.
- Provide opportunities for volunteers to switch to different roles they might find more enjoyable. Chances are, the more your volunteers learn and grow in their roles and start to feel more established with your organization, a situation may evolve that leads to one or more of the council members wanting to move to a different committee or sub-group or be placed on a new project. In these cases, it is extremely important to schedule a time to meet with the volunteer desiring a change and hear what exactly they are hoping to gain from the switch-over or what factors led them to this decision. Make sure their perception of what the new role would hold for them and the reality of what that position entails actually line up. It’s essential to find that middle ground between giving your volunteers what they want and tasking volunteers with what your organization needs.
For experienced council managers, I have a little homework for you: please take a minute to leave a comment with a good question to consider for professionals who are in the nitty gritty planning stage. (For instance, what questions are good to ask on your alumni council application?)
I’ll leave you with my favorite Walt Disney quote: “You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Your young alumni council can help make magic happen at your university.