by Kathy Edersheim, President of Impactrics
Markets are global, education is global, and so alumni relations should be global, too.
There are three good reasons to pay special attention to "international alumni" – those graduates who have returned home from studying abroad or who are working outside their home country:
- They are likely to be innovators and connectors. After all, they took the initiative to travel overseas either for education or for work opportunities.
- Anecdotally, it seems that alumni farther away from campus are often the ones most intent on staying connected to the institution and to other alumni. For alumni based far from home or even far from their school, the alumni community provides a ready-made social group that has shared values and, possibly, provides helpful connections. A robust alumni network with engaging programs can create a very appreciative alum with a strong bond back to the school.
- Alumni can serve the institution in a number of capacities, wherever they are located.
While many institutions are thinking about engaging their international alumni, not all are doing it effectively and efficiently. Here is some advice for successful international alumni relations:
Define Your Scope
First, determine the impact and the types of engagement that would be most valuable to the institution. It is not enough to engage your alumni just for the sake of engagement. Be intentional about the impact on the alumni and on the institution. Consider, for example, how to help international alumni:
- Be your best ambassadors and create goodwill far beyond campus borders.
- Help your institution identify or attract applicants.
- Serve as mentors, career counselors, and conveyors of values to other alumni and to current students locally or at a distance.
Alumni can serve in these capacities whether they are near campus or far away - and international alumni can represent the institution in places that the administration and others rarely visit.
Make sure that your goals for international alumni relations are coordinated with your other efforts. Even as you think about your institution's priorities, consider also what these geographically-distant alumni would like from their relationship with the institution. Where these two intersect, those mutually beneficial activities are where you want to invest time and energy. Once you have identified these activities:
Identify, Connect, Engage, Cultivate
In today's world with so much information on the internet, so many ways to connect, so many ways to deliver content, and so much that can be done virtually, international alumni relations can follow the same basic principles as alumni relations closer to home. Yes, it might be harder to find your alumni living far from campus because they do not come back or self-identify. However, much of the time the greater challenge in working with international alumni is not identifying them, but rather that there are too few of them in a specific community to create a robust program in that region.
So, first, identify your international alumni and find contact information for them. What is more complex with identifying these alumni is that different countries have regulations about information usage. If you are most interested in alumni who are likely to be active and connected to your school, consider two methods as a starting point:
- LinkedIn. With LinkedIn, you can find those who have self-identified as your alumni. You can also publicize that you are looking for your alumni.
- Leverage your current alumni database to help. With your existing database, start an alumni-find-alumni effort. This gives you a reason to reach out and can generate good information. Note that you should communicate why you are trying to identify international alumni; otherwise, people might be wary of joining another distribution list.
Before you send that first email, formulate a communication-engagement-cultivation campaign with defined goals and a timeline for achieving those goals. With this plan in place, take time to compose an informative and welcoming email to re-introduce your alumni to their alma mater. Remember that your alumni might not know about new buildings, new programs, or the current institutional focus. Be positive, enthusiastic and engaging. When you send the second or third email, that is the time to introduce how the alumni might engage with each other and with the institution.
Consider your institutional goals for international alumni relations efforts in order determine what type of engagement you want to generate from these early communications. A first step in engagement might entail inviting alumni to attend an event that is part of a broader alumni effort that is international in scope - for example, a webinar presented by a professor or a day of service. These “all-alumni” events can provide powerful opportunities to re-engage alumni and help them feel connected to the institution.
- If there are enough alumni in an area to form a regional association (and you should define “enough” for your institution based on total living alumni), there needs to be an institutional commitment to helping the alumni form that organization.
- Conversely, if you have only a few alumni in an area, the goal of engagement might be inviting a few alumni to take on an ambassadorial role. For many schools, this is the primary motivation for working with international alumni. In addition to being associated with the school as graduates, alumni can attend events as a representative of the institution.
Whatever your goals, to have a successful program or alumni organization, you need to cultivate the alumni interest in the role. Some alumni ambassadors may self-identify in response to your communications; however, more often you will need to be more direct in your approach and request a conversation. Once you talk to someone, you can build the relationship based on the alum’s interests, which can also help determine activities for the local group. In a location where you are trying to start a chapter, you can begin with the ambassadorial engagement to identify potential leaders for an organization.
There is an alternative (or additional) way to work with international alumni – as one large affinity group with a mission to support the institution around the world based on a shared interest in global activities. Facilitating the formation of such an international alumni affinity group can be a powerful force for the institution, while providing dynamic programming and personally fulfilling engagement for the alumni. Given the power of social media and global communication, there are advantages to forming this kind of virtual organization.
Or: you could make the international alumni association an umbrella group for the international chapters, to help support their efforts. The steps to success for this type of group are similar to those for a more traditional regional chapter.
Most importantly, the international alumni relations effort must have a clear purpose – with well-defined goals and benefits for the institution and the alumni – that are communicated to the alumni. The organizations and the activities need to be a collaborative effort of the school and the alumni to ensure that international alumni have the support and the sense of connection that furthers a mutually beneficial lifelong relationship.