Building Strong Relationships with
Young Alumni

In recent news, development officers at Claremont McKenna College are expanding their alumni engagement strategy by asking alumni volunteers to interview their peers about interest and affinity. The college's commitment to investing in engaging young alumni has already seen returns: the institution's 10-year average giving rate has increased 6% since 2008, despite a difficult economy.

Now, more than ever, institutions need to ensure the long-term health of the annual fund by moving donors into the pipeline early, and young alumni are often an insufficiently tapped resource. Yet this year sees not only a continuing trend of volunteerism but also growing numbers of recent graduates seeking to reconnect with their alma mater for assistance with networking and career advancement opportunities in this economy. It is critical that alumni relations and annual fund professionals take advantage of a surge in interest from young alumni, through proactive and deliberate outreach.

We asked Elise M. Betz, executive director of alumni relations at the University of Pennsylvania; Linda Williams Favero,  assistant director of the University of Oregon Career Center; and Elizabeth Allen, executive director of communications for THINK Global School, for tips on cultivating young alumni engagement.

Focus on Services for Young Alumni

First, Linda Williams Favero stresses the importance of starting with what alumni need, rather than what you need, when approaching young alumni. The relationship with young alumni needs to be two-way; the institution needs to be invested in providing young alumni with the services and attention they need and want. That is what encourages young alumni to invest in the institution.

"Our job is not done when they graduate, especially if we want them to stay connected for a lifetime.  In the long-term if young alumni receive the support they need to be successful after college, they will want to give back financially to the institution that invested in them when they needed it most."
Linda Williams Favero, U of Oregon

In this year's uncertain job market, many young alumni are reconnecting with their alma mater to seek aid with job searching and career services. Offering these services is one of the best opportunities to engage young alumni. "More than communicating tips and opportunities electronically," Favero advises, "young alumni want face time." Offer your alumni variety in how they can connect with your services, so that each alumnus can connect in a way that matches his or her learning style and professional needs:

  • One-on-one counseling
  • 8-person job search groups
  • Practical workshops with large networking events with panel discussions and receptions

"Get them back to campus early," Elise Betz adds. "Plan a 'signature' young alumni event for the fall specifically for the first few years out. Offer opportunities for young alumni to network with older alumni by industry and career field."

For more tips on career services for young alumni, read our article "Connecting Young Alumni with Careers."

Offer Young Alumni a Menu of Options

"Schools must be willing to enter into a relationship with their young alumni, to develop a comprehensive plan, and to be ready to offer them what they need and want (which is more than just a place at the table). In order to have measurable, sustainable success, an institution must be willing to commit to long-term planning and a multiplicity of programs."
Courtney Gulden, Academic Impressions

Betz advises including in your plan for young alumni engagement a diverse "menu" of options for how they can connect with your institution. For example, offer:

  • On-campus, regional, and virtual venues for engagement (virtual opportunities could include webcasts, iTunes U, YouTube, etc.)
  • Social, educational and career networking opportunities

"Do not only communicate when you are soliciting -- make sure there is a balance."
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania

This advice also holds for your communications strategy for young alumni. Alumni may have diverse preferences when it comes to communications. "Some like to be contacted via phone," Elizabeth Allen notes, "others only want to be contacted via mail, and still others want paperless options. Sometimes they're not sure what they want (and therefore neither are you)." Allen recommends adopting a multichannel communications approach (social technologies, direct mail, magazines, phone calls, websites, podcasts, video, etc). "Open several doors to your alumni," she advises, "allowing them to engage with you in the method(s) of their choosing."

"Allow alumni to engage with you in the way they want to, not the way that's easiest and most convenient for you."
Elizabeth Allen, THINK Global School

Leverage Young Alumni Volunteers

Peer-to-peer outreach is both the most effective and least staff-intensive method of outreach available to you -- but it has to be a deliberate and strategic effort. Betz advises:

  • Be explicit in your request for help from young alumni volunteers
  • Give clear deadlines and specific tasks
  • Offer incentives, such as invitations to events that are exclusive to volunteers

The University of Pennsylvania has also established a young alumni council (Claremont McKenna College has taken early steps in the same direction) -- an effort that has notable advantages but also a few disadvantages to be aware of, too.

Betz lists these advantages:

  • Structure
  • Leadership opportunities for young alumni
  • More opportunities for peer-to-peer outreach
  • The sense of responsibility felt by "council" members
  • The council can serve as a pipeline for other leadership positions at your institution

The disadvantages, Betz notes, include:

  • Exclusivity -- "to some it might appear like a clique"
  • A more narrow or limited breadth and scope to your efforts

The key, whether you form an alumni council or simply a cadre of active volunteers, is to engage them early (ideally while they are still students at your institution) and to be proactive in identifying potential alumni leaders.

"Retain student involvement into young alumnihood.  Student leaders become alumni leaders so stay connected to those individuals and use them to plan events."
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania