How universities can keep alumni excited and connected

A new board member of the Alumni Association for one of the Ivies reached out and asked me for some ideas on how they could better engage their graduates. I took this as a challenge, and brainstormed a list of ideas on how universities can do more to engage their alumni community.  I thought this might be of interest to others:

  • Encourage tighter cooperation among their alumni special interest groups (SIGs). The easy way to do this: Provide a central database of ALL SIGs and the current officers leading them. Universities typically have many affiliated Special Interest Groups (SIGs), but almost no cooperation between them. For example, Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Business School all have SIGs focused on women, but those groups don’t interact much between themselves while the students are on campus. However, a 30 year old Harvard college grad working in medtech and a 30 year old Harvard Med grad working as a doctor definitely have overlapping interests. As an example of cross-alumni SIG cooperation: HBS Alumni Angels of NY organizes periodic pitch nights geared to women, African-American, Latino, Arab, and LBGT entrepreneurs, joint with all the relevant HBS and Harvard affinity groups.  This helps create diversified deal flow and closed investments.  Similarly, in April 2017, HBS Angels NY organized the first annual MENA Tech Summit joint between Harvard Arab Alumni Association, ABANA (formerly the Arab Bankers Association), HBS Alumni Angels NY, and HOF Capital.  
  • Share a database of elite fellowships/support programs appropriate for alumni, comparable to the fellowships database that Harvard maintains for undergrads. In my book To University and Beyond: Launch Your Career in High Gear we have a full list. Here’s an excerpt, to give you a sense of the programs that alumni can avail themselves of:
  • Encourage and enable alums to be active in civil society, particularly in groups. While in school, many students are active politically.  Then they graduate, get jobs, spouses & kids, and typically have less time to participate in civil society.  However, America is in dire need of a more vibrant civil society. For ideas, see 10 Non-Partisan Ways Business Leaders Can Help Fix America and Partisan Activism 101 for Investors and Executives. People are more likely to get civically involved if they do as a group, not just individually.
  • Build and manage active alumni online communities, not just a simple alumni database. For example, Harvard in Tech maintains a vibrant Slack community. This is far more useful than the simple database of alumni names & emails that most schools offer.
  • Push for public civil society commitments at reunions.  The Clinton Global Initiative required attendees to publicly commit to achieving certain quantitative goals, e.g., “I pledge to lower my firm’s carbon footprint by at least 5%”.  Why not give alums the chance to make the same sort of public commitments at reunion?
  • Use advocate management software (e.g., Influitive) to gamify encouraging alumni to engage with the university.
  • Tap the broader alumni community efficiently by enriching the university’s database. Alumni databases are typically incomplete and very stale. Solution: Annually solicit alums to update their online profiles, including such important data points as their interest in angel investing or their industry.  Typically, the SIGs that interest an alum will change dramatically over the arc of their lives.  
  • Run mutual opt-in speed networking.  Market to alumni the chance to spend a day meeting with alums who share their interests, in person or virtually.  This would cost little to organize, just one staff person’s time to coordinate. Send out the alum’s bio to all other alums interested in being mentored, and the mentees sign up for a 20 minute slot with the mentors who are interested. 
  • Enable “forums”, similar to the Young Presidents Organization and Entrepreneurs Organization.  For example, the HBS Club of NY advertises, “Experience the value of an Alumni Forum—a group of 8 – 12 HBS alumni who meet monthly, working together to help its members grow personally and professionally by sharing in an atmosphere of confidentiality, trust, and respect.” My coauthor Mandee Heller Adler, President of International College Counselors and a member of an HBS Alumni Forum in South Florida (“El Cinco por Ciento”) remarks, “My forum is like my Board of Directors. We meet monthly and discuss important business ideas and concerns. We’ve also formed close bonds that are difficult to forge after graduation. Through my forum I’ve learned a lot, received valuable advice, and had a great time with some incredibly talented new friends.”
  • Provide graduate school support to graduates: It’s not unusual for graduates to take multiple years off prior to going to graduate school.  Graduate school advisors should be made available to alumni, as well as current students. Mandee Heller Adler said, “One idea to increase graduate school success among alumni is for colleges to make graduate school advising available to graduates, as well as current students. This would enhance a mutually-beneficial bridge between alumni and the college.

Further reading:
Alumni networks reimagined: Innovations expanding alumni connections to improve postsecondary pathways

Thanks to Ben Leiner and my coauthor Mandee Heller Adler for thoughtful feedback.


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