Make Your Alumni Board Effective

June 9, 2011. During a series of interviews with leaders in alumni relations earlier this year, Academic Impressions found that many alumni relations offices are struggling with their alumni boards or alumni association boards. While a working board can offer institutional leaders partners to aid in achieving institutional goals for engagement and giving, most boards are not filling this role.

Among the common problems:

  • Many boards remain too focused on specific tactics -- such as reunion and homecoming
  • Other boards have grown too large and unwieldy, preventing them from "getting down to business"
  • Boards struggle to ensure that 100 percent of their members give to the institution and that their members model supportive relationships with administration

To learn more about the characteristics of an effective "working board," we turned to Gary Olsen, associate vice president of alumni relations and executive director of the alumni association at Villanova University, and Christine Tempesta, director of strategic initiatives with the MIT Alumni Association. Olsen and Tempesta shared their advice on the qualities to look for in board members and managing the board's scope of responsibilities.

Who's on the Working Board?

Olsen and Tempesta suggest these criteria for selecting board members who will be well-positioned to coordinate alumni and contribute meaningfully to institutional goals:

  • Look for qualities that reflect the core values of your institution; "If your institution places high value on entrepreneurship," Olsen notes, "find entrepreneurs; at Villanova, one cornerstone is service, so we look for people who have a real service orientation. You want qualities that tell the story of your institution"
  • Because board members will serve as leaders and role models for your alumni community, you need regular givers
  • Ensure that your board reflects the diversity of your alumni population; "Do you have the right mix in terms of ethnic, gender, geographic, and industry diversity?" Tempesta asks. "Does the representative board look like it is truly representative of the alumni"
  • Look for the right skill sets -- not just volunteerism and leadership skills, but any skills that will be of especial help in moving your alumni community forward given current needs; Tempesta recommends conducting a SWOT analysis to identify whether there are any skill sets missing or any support the board could be bringing to the table but currently isn't; "If you have the right skill set and the right mix, the board will be better able to garner the respect of the larger alumni body," Tempesta advises, "which will help the board get things done"

Olsen cautions, "Some institutions still use an open election or at least open nominations to select board members. This practice is filled with shortcomings. What can occur is that you wind up with members who are very skilled at getting elected, but not necessarily at much else. Establish a really well-defined process for identifying and recruiting the right members. Ask what skills and qualities you need to add to the board to help it better serve its function and purpose -- then actively recruit for those skills and qualities."

Christine Tempesta at MIT takes an alternative approach, however, filling volunteer positions through a combination of nomination and recruitment. "We have a committee review the nominations to select the 7-8 candidates who will appear on the ballot," she notes, "and we then use preferential voting, asking voters to identify their top candidate, their second and third candidates, etc. We believe that the identification, the recruitment, and the stewardship of volunteers needs to be a shared responsibility of both staff and the board."

Tempesta adds these cautions:

  • Avoid appointing board members as a reward; "This is a bad habit in our business," Tempesta cautions; "not everyone has the skills for working on the board. Some people are not good on teams. Make sure you are appointing board members because they fill a need on the board, they have the right skills set, and they help to add to the diversity of the board -- not just as a reward"
  • Begin cultivating future board members now; Tempesta advises: "Think ahead: who do you need on your board in five years? Who do you need to be pipelining? Have conversations early with alumni leaders; chat with them about the next rung on the leadership ladder and where they'll go next. Planning and foresight will help you arrive at a board that is the right fit"

The Board's Responsibilities

To move the alumni board from operational to strategic concerns, Olsen suggests that expectations must be set for the board to:

  • Establish plans to support the institution's overarching strategic goals with meaningful action (e.g., board members can serve as brand ambassadors, attending brand roll-out events and visibly supporting the initiative)
  • Oversee and provide input on alumni programs and services
  • Serve as representatives and ambassadors for their institution

"When a board is not doing these things," Olsen warns, "there is a tendency to micromanage operational responsibilities that are better overseen by professional staff. When the board is discussing the color of the napkins and the menu selections, they are not operating at a strategic level." Tempesta adds, "When planning the agenda for the board, don't give them the weeds, give them the 40,000-foot view. Don't put technical items on the agenda. The alumni relations staff get so bogged down sorting tickets, making meeting plans, checking signage and name badges -- what better time than with the board to set aside space for strategic thinking?"

Here are examples of effective ways to engage the alumni board:

  • At an institution considering whether to upgrade football to Division I, the athletic director sent a webcast on the issues to the board members; the board felt well-briefed and had the data they needed to respond to questions from other alumni
  • Following an annual alumni gathering of lead volunteers or lead givers, devote an hour at the alumni board meeting to debrief the activity -- what worked? What didn't work well? What are recommendations for improvement? -- gather meaningful input from the board that can be used to retool and improve the program
  • Challenge board members to meet be consistent and annual donors, and have them take action to support a fundraising goal