By Kathy Edersheim
Social distancing and isolation brought on by the pandemic have proven the importance of community and connection, the very priorities for alumni relations. As the vaccine rolls-out and we look forward to a new normal, it is the perfect moment for alumni associations to assess the challenges and, yes, opportunities that have emerged from an almost entirely virtual system and consider what that means for the future. Observing and working with over 25 institutions during the past year has provided perspective on the potential for new directions and greater success.
During the outset of the pandemic
Since March, alumni relations pivoted to the virtual world like everything else. The first challenge was how to get alumni to support students facing an abbreviated semester and, often, financial challenges. It was a major communication effort to keep alumni informed about cancelled events (including refunds for tickets), campus news, and to solicit donations for student emergency funds while working remotely. At some institutions, the alumni-student support network for career guidance was mobilized to assist graduating students. Overall, the remote management of this process was surprisingly well-accepted and effective in maintaining and building connections.
For many institutions, the most important means of connecting with alumni are spring reunions. Because they were postponed or cancelled, necessity became the mother (or alma mater) of invention and alumni relations’ teams created ways to stay connected with and to serve alumni virtually. Following the student emergency fundraising campaigns, programming turned to a wide range of lifelong learning programs presented as panels and lectures with star professors, successful alumni and, sometimes, the highest-level administrators.
As it became clear that the pandemic would continue through the year, there was demand for more outreach and opportunities for participatory activities that more closely mimicked “old-fashioned” alumni relations that foster engagement and socialization. So, the second wave of programs included participatory activities from cooking together to book clubs to art workshops and virtual reunions connecting class groups and affinity groups.
While it seemed counter-intuitive to create connections while fully remote, and everything appeared to happen at once, there were many successes and challenges that taught us about our alumni. First, consider some of the opportunities that emerged from the past year that will continue to be relevant for the future:
- Alumni gained an appreciation for connecting and giving back, especially when asked for a good reason, such as student support.
- Virtual programming eliminated geographic boundaries (though time zones remain a challenge) making it possible to reach a big audience for an event. For example, alumni relations officers have told me about events with 500 people when they had struggled to attract 50 in the past.
- Regional chapters and affinity groups can offer their programming to a wider audience and attract new members.
- Virtual formats have made it possible and attractive for academics and administrators, including the President, who normally are too busy to address alumni, to present or talk at alumni events because it requires only an hour and provides a wide outreach.
- Most alumni have learned to participate in virtual events, and they like it, much to the surprise of the older alumni themselves.
- Given the low-cost to produce events and the ease of marketing, a wide variety of formats (smaller, interactive as well as webinars) and content can and be offered for engagement and to satisfy specific interests.
- Having a platform for virtual community to leverage communications and connection has proven valuable.
Fostering a virtual community while working remotely presented many new challenges and revealed existing issues as well. To begin, technology was a major challenge. Few alumni associations were prepared to offer any virtual programming much less ONLY virtual programming in March 2020. Getting past that hurdle took weeks for some and months for others. Now, as we approach a transition, it is a good time to consider the challenges facing alumni relations:
- Given that virtual programming is not as engaging as in-person interactions, what has been lost over the past year?
- How will alumni associations be able to track and adopt the latest and greatest technology as alumni expect, given their lack of resources?
- What is needed to support and train volunteers wanting to organize virtual events?
- How can alumni relations attract participation, given the competition for the eyes and ears and minds of alumni by so many entities creating content and offering it at low or no cost?
- How can the alumni association address how different alumni groups have been affected by the event of the past year?
- What should be done for alumni who are not online due to cost, access, or personal preference, especially the older generations?
- How can alumni engagement be more inclusive and equitable?
- How do you track and value online participation especially compared to in-person?
- How will governance for alumni groups and leadership development change?
- If everyone and anyone can attend events, how do you maintain affinity groups and the closer connections they foster?
- When in-person events are available, how will you address the demand for them to be offered virtually as well – such as in the case of a hybrid system?
- How can you sustain or grow the value of an online community platform?
Overall, each alumni association needs to address its fundamental mission of engaging alumni to benefit the institution and for personal fulfillment. That means perpetuating deeper, more personal connections that align with the institutional goals through affinity groups and regional chapters that offer engagement and participation with others with shared interests.
As we look forward to being together again, we need to plan, and we need to be flexible. We can anticipate that alumni relations will be virtual and in-person with hybrid event formats and new programs emerging, but there is no way to predict the balance at any time for any one institution. Even without knowing exactly when or how things will change, it is crucial to start planning and be prepared to implement the plans.
The goal is to maximize alumni engagement during the transition and beyond. How can you make your alumni think of you as one of the first places they turn to when they can meet and visit? Here are some elements to include in your plans:
- Plan events to be hybrid with virtual or in-person participation to maintain flexibility and reflect the preferences of your alumni.
- Focus on engagement that builds strong bonds with interaction and in-person opportunities as soon as possible.
- Make plans that are flexible and adaptable (hybrid helps with this).
- Recognize that many alumni will want to get back to traveling which is an opportunity to bring alumni back to campus and to offer destination events as well as educational travel.
- Make sure there continues to be strong virtual content.
- Consider different types of engagement that are important to the institution whether career oriented, student-alumni, social, service-oriented, and/or leadership training and development that incorporates the virtual as well as the more traditional.
For many alumni relations teams, reunions are top of mind as the traditional planning cycle begins in the fall and accelerates in January. Even with the vaccine campaign underway, it is too early and too uncertain to plan for large gatherings in May or June. It is very possible that small groups could gather on campus or, more likely, at satellite events that could be shared virtually to provide a celebratory event or series of events. The most important consideration is providing an engaging experience planned with the alumni of the reunion classes. A range of programs might include virtual cocktails/mocktails with breakout rooms to open, two or three professor lectures shared across classes, a virtual panel of classmates for each cohort, an arts performance from campus, or small local gatherings connected online to close.
The older generations (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers) have surprised many, including themselves, by adapting to Zoom and other technology quickly and completely. They love the interaction, connection, and content streamed into their homes (no travel time, no night driving, no added expense!) especially in the absence of other options. The Baby Boomers are now the Baby Zoomers enjoying “zinners” and supporting virtual-a-thons. But this cohort is also eager to attend reunions, see friends and family, and go on the bucket-list trip, so the transition needs to facilitate a balance.
Keeping young alumni engaged has always been and will always be a challenge. The next few years will be complicated by the unprecedented experiences of the classes from ’20 to ’24. With their campus and overall educational experience so deeply affected by the pandemic, their affinity is different and most likely, weaker than from earlier classes. There is less time with classmates, less time on campus, fewer extra-curricular activities, no “in-between” moments, little socializing over meals, and few opportunities to cultivate school spirit in the absence of convocation, sports, theater, graduation, etc. Without shared experiences and traditions, how will these alumni relate to each other and to the institution?
For the class of ’20 that missed the joy and celebration of their graduation, ordinarily the time to emphasize the value of alumni engagement, they still benefited from most of the opportunities for a great student experience. Many were the beneficiaries of donations from alumni in the spring of 2020. But the biggest effect of the pandemic for them was on the prospects for careers and next endeavors, at least in the short term. Job offers were postponed or revoked and the landscape for careers went through a monumental shift. Universities that help meet the needs of these young alumni through networking, mentoring, and information sharing will have the most dedicated alumni over the long term.
For the classes of ’21 – ’24, no one can predict what their attenuated educational experience might mean for their commitment and engagement as alumni. It will be more important than ever to ask the young alumni what matters to them and how the alumni connection can help them – no more assumptions that what worked last year will work again this year. Based on my observations, the likely areas of interest for the youngest alumni are: career support/guidance, mentoring, and programs about social responsibility, especially related to equity and inclusion in the workplace and public health. It could be a particularly good investment to spend time getting to know and understand these soon-to-be alumni who have such a different perspective than previous generations.
Communications will continue to be a linchpin for all of alumni relations. There has been a full shift to email and social media. Email is the single most cost-effective method for sending out information to about half the alumni population and social media is primary for the other half. Whether because of lack of resources or concern for overwhelming alumni, educational institutions tend to email less than corporate entities. A compilation of information from Snovio Labs shows that people want emails at least once a month (86%) and most would like once a week (61%) from entities they care about assuming that the content is relevant to the recipient. Open rates, click-through rates, and unsubscribes are all helpful measures to determine what suits your alumni.
Social media such as, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Facebook presents unique challenges in alumni relations. Alumni self-organize on the various platforms which is good news and not-so-good news. You can celebrate that your alumni want to engage and stay connected with each other, but it would be best if it included institutional representation. To meet your alumni “where they are,” look at the groups that they form on social media and join them; do not try to control them. At the same time, it is also important to have an institutional presence on most social media platforms to share information and announce events so consider how to be strategic in leveraging your connectors as social media ambassadors on whichever platforms seem most relevant to your alumni. Call on young alumni to identify new platforms where you should have a presence.
If you increased communications during COVID, keep it up!
Conclusion and next steps
What lessons can we learn from the challenges and the successes of the past nine months? Our alumni want to connect and stay informed; they want to learn; and they appreciate the high-powered content being offered. As we emerge from the pandemic, we should take advantage of having time to plan based on what we have learned about alumni interests, technology, and institutional priorities.
The basic principles of alumni relations have resonated, although how we do the work has shifted leading to four considerations to guide our efforts into the future:
- Affirm institutional priorities – vision and mission must align with the institution, which could mean greater emphasis on career readiness or supporting different affinity groups.
- The next new normal – online connections, virtual and hybrid gatherings, and extensive use of technology are here to stay. We are never going back to programming all in-person. Nor will use of technology be limited to email, data management, and an occasional virtual meeting.
- Accelerated change – the constant evolution of technology, the change in interests of alumni including accommodating young alumni whose education was disrupted by the pandemic, and the increase in competition for attention will mean alumni relations has to evolve faster.
- Know your alumni – the need to meet your alumni where they are is more important than ever as they continue to be bombarded by alternative opportunities, often tailored to specific interests.
Start planning now:
- Evaluate the success of the programs offered in the past nine months based on topic, concept, message, quality, and audience.
- Set goals for 2021 – level of engagement, alumni participation, students assisted, mentorships, career support provided.
- Working with campus partners and alumni leadership, prepare a “wish list” calendar of events that includes virtual, hybrid, and (smaller) in-person programs that support the goals. Remember to consider a range of opportunities for different classes and affinity groups. It might include travel.
- Determine the technology needed to make virtual (and hybrid) events engaging.
- Confirm the viability of the plans (costs and timing) with campus leadership.
- Set the communication calendar for the events.
- Revisit the wish list at least quarterly and adapt as needed.
Most of all, let’s plan for some togetherness in 2021.
Kathy Edersheim is the President of Impactrics, a social enterprise to strengthen education through enhanced alumni engagement. Impactrics focuses on alumni engagement to benefit the institution, the students, and the alumni with measurable impact. Kathy brings over 20 years of experience in volunteer engagement and leadership development with a wide range of institutions to her work. She specializes in working with educational institutions as they develop and deliver strong alumni relations programs that address cross-disciplinary needs including communications, career services, development, and admissions.