We understand that your alumni are a hugely important resource for your college or university. Since they have firsthand experience with your courses, campus services, research programs, faculty mentors, networking opportunities and more, they can often provide the strongest testimonials – encouraging prospective students to apply and prospective donors and industry partners to commit funding and time to your mission. Their professional successes speak volumes about how your program prepared them for their careers. Beyond helping to market your brand, we know you can also turn to alumni as valuable resources for your current students, for whom they can serve as mentors, advisors, internship coordinators, and even connections to their future careers.
For these reasons, we know that it’s vital that you maintain and develop long-term alumni relationships. But maintaining an engaged alumni community can be challenging for higher ed marketers because the needs and expectations of alumni differ from those of prospective students and students. That’s why outreach efforts need to be designed to offer them value, as well as encourage their support.
ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT: THINK BEYOND ASKING FOR MONEY
Financial support is essential to every college and university. Alumni gifts help fund student scholarships as well as programs that directly impact students’ experience and increase their chances of academic success. Alumni who had a positive experience at your school and see the value their education has brought to their professional endeavors are often inclined to give back – but that desire to help also depends on how a college or university has stayed connected since they earned their degrees.
Requests for financial gifts, or even time commitments, from a college or university that has not otherwise tried to engage its alumni, are more likely to be ignored or to receive minimal interest. Alumni want to feel valued by – and get some value from a relationship with – their alma mater. Much like your focus on creating a positive student experience, fostering a positive alumni experience will deepen your relationships with former students and encourage their support in a variety of ways.
WHY ENGAGING ALUMNI HAS BECOME DIFFICULT
You may encounter a number of potential challenges in trying to engage alumni. Busy personal and professional schedules, lives established far from their former campus, and an increased reliance on digital communication versus phone calls or attendance at in-person events can reduce alumni involvement with their former colleges or universities.
At the same time, you are focused on recruiting efforts; meeting the needs of your students, faculty, and staff; building industry relationships; engaging established donors; hosting events; and more. When it comes to communicating about opportunities, events, or fundraising, offering the personalization and ease your alumni prefer may feel like an overwhelming prospect.
HOW TO CRAFT A SOLID ENGAGEMENT STRATEGY
Successfully engaging alumni means understanding their needs and developing a strategy to meet them. That means you have to get to know alumni better and then work to build their trust and involvement. The earlier you establish relationships with alumni, the more likely they are to feel valued and to see the value in remaining connected.
Staying engaged with current students and recent grads can help lay the foundation for successful long-term relationships with alumni. You can do this with engaging social media posts and emails that encourage alumni input and participation in fun or useful on-campus and virtual events.
Understand that your alumni are all at different stages in their lives. Recent graduates may still be searching for jobs or trying to establish their careers and may not have much to offer financially yet, although they may be more eager to mentor or otherwise engage directly with students since they have a clear recollection of their own experiences.
Alumni who graduated several years ago may be more established and financially secure, so they may be a better bet for fundraising outreach – though that should not be your sole focus. They could also potentially provide experiential and networking opportunities for your current students. Do your research to find out where these alumni are now, what they are doing, and what their interests may be, and tailor your outreach accordingly.
Alumni who graduated several decades ago may be nearing retirement, which may or may not mean they have more financial resources, but likely means they will have more time. Encouraging direct involvement with your students – through in-person or virtual mentoring, guest speaker gigs, and competition judging – will help them feel connected with your college or university and encourage them to expand their relationship over time.
In all cases, it’s important to add value to your alumni community. You can show them that they matter to their school in a variety of ways – like spotlighting their success stories in newsletters, microsites, and on social media; hosting events that encourage them to reminisce and network with fellow graduates; offering alumni awards for standout achievements and high levels of support; and letting them know about continuing education opportunities in their field.
TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL COMMUNICATIONS WITH ALUMNI
A strong alumni relationship relies on regular communication. Here are some tips to keep in mind for effectively engaging former students.
- Start With a Gentle Engagement Strategy: Instead of leading with a hard ask for funds, begin by engaging alumni with communications that inform them about current college or university news and achievements and encourage them to share their stories or feedback.
- Regularly Reinforce Their Value to Your School: Inviting alumni to represent your college or university at high-level events, requesting them to serve as expert presenters or mentors, and celebrating their achievements with spotlights and awards will show your alumni that they are a vital part of your school community.
- Show Them What They Can Get Out Of a Continued Connection: Offer professional support by letting them know about networking events, continuing education programs, and career and campus services. Give them opportunities to connect with other alumni through reunions and alumni network communication channels.
- Share Updates That Match Their Interests and Ask for Feedback: Based on how long ago they graduated, their field, and their professional experiences, target news about college or university updates and achievements to the right audiences and encourage them to share suggestions for improving your institution via email, social media, and more.
- Personalize Your Messages: To the best of your ability, avoid generic communications that can be easily overlooked and instead focus on outreach tailored to your alumni’s experiences and interests. Request that they keep in touch about any career or personal achievements, or job or location changes, that may help you tailor future messaging.
- Don’t Over-Solicit Donations: Fundraising is an important focus of alumni engagement, but it should never be your only one. Build a healthy balance of communications that encourage involvement and feedback, share the benefits of alumni involvement, and show alumni the potential impacts of their volunteerism and financial gifts.