Alumni Career Services on a Budget

Published in 2011.

As advancement officers strive to maintain the health of the annual fund in a season of donor uncertainty, articles such as this recent feature in the Calgary Herald point to a growing awareness among North American colleges and universities of the need to engage alumni early (even before they graduate), and a trend in institutions offering more high-demand services in order to remain connected with alumni after graduation and demonstrate the institution's interest in a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.

We turned this week to Julie Hays Bartimus, vice president of the alumni career center for the University of Illinois Alumni Association, to learn more about how academic institutions can offer meaningful career services for alumni -- on a limited budget.

Based on lessons learned from the progress at the University of Illinois, Bartimus offers an array of tips for resourcing key career services initiatives:

  • Facilitating professional networking among young alumni
  • Expanding the educational programming you can offer
  • Ramping up to offer one-on-one career counseling services

Facilitating Alumni Networking

"The greatest stated need of alumni," Bartimus remarks, "is for us to help them identify job opportunities. But in reality, the job board is not the most effective tool for candidates to use in their job search. To really help our alumni see results and to forge a meaningful partnership with them, we need to help them in their networking, and help them to understand their own strengths and skills, and the challenges they will have on the job search."

To meet this need, Bartimus recommends moving beyond career fairs to research where and how your alumni are currently networking. What online sites and what physical venues are your alumni already using to connect with each other, and to connect with your institution?

For example:

  • A small liberal arts college might begin by looking at alumni arts clubs, book clubs, theater clubs, and other affinity organizations
  • An institution with a large alumni base might start by setting up a group on LinkedIn, where many of the alumni are likely already trying to build their professional networks. By forming an alumni group on LinkedIn, an institution can offer them a larger network

Expanding Your Educational Programming

Bartimus advises that there are three steps you can take to expand your educational programming, which are likely to have an impact on your ability to serve and engage young alumni through career services:

  • Provide educational materials about your career services to graduating seniors
  • Develop a series of online webcasts and tutorials
  • Develop a virtual career center

Providing online resources and webcasts on job search basics, networking skills, interviewing, and resume writing need not be a high-cost effort; many institutions have a largely untapped pool of both expertise and manpower in their own alumni -- and research by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch suggests both that many of your alumni may be eager to contribute their time and skills, and that engaging alumni volunteers is a potent strategy for cultivating future donors. (See our article "Making the Most of Alumni Volunteers.")

Bartimus suggests inviting alumni guests to sit on a panel on a job search topic, or inviting alumni to facilitate or present a webcast.

"Map out a calendar of 3-6 topics that your alumni surveys tell you are high priority. Going to a volunteer-based model, you can do a lot quickly."
Julie Bartimus, U of Illinois

As you build your volunteer base, you can:

  • Move to a virtual career center model, a hub of online resources that includes recordings of past webcasts as well as links to other resources
  • Offer webcasts on special topics: Where can alumni work in the world of green careers? How can you use behavior-based interviewing techniques to ask smart questions of your interviewer, of your future employer?
  • Next, develop your most knowledgeable and involved alumni volunteers into an alumni advisory committee; Bartimus recommends including alumni association board members, employer representatives, as well as other volunteers. You can invite the advisory committee to contribute in planning where your alumni career services -- and other alumni services -- can go from here

"You know how to provide the services," Bartimus remarks; "tap into the expertise of your alumni to bring the content, and to help you find the most effective ways to promote it. For example, your alumni who work in the marketing profession can help you brainstorm a solid, low-cost marketing strategy."

Ramping Up to Offer One-on-One Career Counseling

Networking and educational programming are the obvious places to focus on ramping up your services if you have a limited budget and a large group of alumni to serve. However, it is also possible (though less easy) to develop an aggressive individual career advising program to offer alumni customized help with their job search strategy, mock interviews, and feedback throughout the process. Besides offering a higher degree of service, this individual assistance can serve to forge a stronger and more personal relationship between your institution and future donors.

The key to resourcing such an effort, as with your other career services, is to look for alumni volunteers. Bartimus recommends looking first for alumni who provide career counseling as part of their professional work; a second option is to find alumni who work in human resources -- but in that case you need to be prepared to provide more training and facilitation for your volunteers.