Taking Engagement to the Next Level: Building Achievement Networks

Alumni and other prospects desire more meaningful engagement with your institution, meaning a continuation of the learning experience, connection with their peers, and (if they are to become volunteers and donors) a sense of shared purpose and of shared work toward a common cause. Jim Langley, president of Langley Innovations, argues that one of the most effective ways to build a sense of shared purpose is to share successes -- and he notes that while colleges and universities often publicize their successes through press releases, they frequently miss many more meaningful opportunities to leverage success stories to build constituency.

Langley suggests that institutions have many unrealized opportunities to engage those individuals who may not have been previously connected with the institution but who have an impact in the lives of the institution's best and brightest. The basic idea is that when celebrating the successes of students at the high end of educational attainment (for example, students who have received a distinguished graduate fellowship or who are graduating in the top 5 percent of their class), institutions could also be reaching out to those students' personal networks and inviting them into the celebration and afterward into sustained engagement with the institution.

We asked Langley to elaborate on this concept of "achievement networks" and how they can be used to build deep and long-term constituency. Here is his advice.

Sample Scenario: The Rhodes Scholar

Here's an example. Suppose that one of your students is selected as a Rhodes Scholar. A typical institutional response is to send out a press release and hold a reception to honor the student. "The student then goes on to Oxford," Langley remarks, "and that's the end of it. A huge opportunity has been missed to build constituency and to build out a circle or community of excellence, an achievement network."

What the institution could have done in this case, Langley notes, is approach the student and offer to work with them to celebrate with those individuals who have contributed to the student's success:

  • Ask the student for the names, phone numbers, and addresses of 12 to 15 people who contributed to their success and made a difference in their lives
  • Issue letters from the president inviting those individuals to a reception

Note that these individuals are not necessarily professors or staff at your institution. Some of them may be fellow students. Some may advanced placement teachers from high school, or a minister, or someone who had an influence during the student's early childhood. Whoever these individuals are, send letters from your institution's president to them, letting them know that the student has been selected as a Rhodes Scholar and remembers them as a primary influence in her life. Let them know that the institution wants to honor them and congratulate them for their significant achievement to the success of youth.

"Suddenly," Langley suggests, "someone out there who may have been feeling unrecognized and unloved gets a letter saying they have been recognized and are valued. At this point, the ripple effect of the one student having been named a Rhodes Scholar increases fifteenfold. And it doesn't stop there. The recognized individuals put the letter on their wall; perhaps they frame it. They tell their colleagues and their family. And these are individuals who are making a difference in the lives of young people. These are influencers and suppliers of achievement. These are the people your institution needs to engage."

Building a Network of Suppliers and Influencers

"We want more and more people to feel a part of the long-term achievement of human talent. We want to recognize our suppliers and our supply lines in the production of human achievement."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Langley suggests that if the institution were to hold such receptions and identify key influencers over a period of years, you would begin to see "achievement networks" revealed. He suggests asking critical questions:

  • Do Rhodes Scholars (or, in another example, those students graduating in the top 5 percent of their class) tend to concur in listing certain kinds of people or even certain people as having influence? Is there a pattern in the evolution of a Rhodes Scholar?
  • Are there faculty and staff at your own institution whose names keep surfacing on these lists, who are making a difference?
  • Do your high achievers note particular teachers or particular programs at particular feeder schools? (And can you connect your recruiters with those teachers?)

As you identify the people who have made a difference in the achievements of your students, find ways to invite them to serve as a formal part of your community. Here are examples:

  • An award or recognition
  • A refresher course for an advancement placement teacher -- "if an advanced placement math teacher keeps appearing when students list their achievement networks," Langley suggests, "then bring that person on board. Invite them to work with your best faculty in mathematics; offer to underwrite the expense."
  • Convene a topic on at-risk populations, and invite and include it the program key people from the achievement network
  • Identify individuals who made a difference for your high-achieving students in the sciences, and invite them to a meeting on how to engage more youth in the sciences

"What would you like to have more of?" Langley asks. "More science students? More women in the sciences? More men in the liberal arts? More lower-income students? What does your institution need? Look for students who are exemplars in that field or that community, find out who made a difference for them, then go back to those people who made a difference and make them a part of the conversation. Ask them: how do we achieve our goals? By sharing the celebration of success in a way that identifies and builds a network of those who influence achievement, you in fact make success more possible in the future, and in the process you understand the anatomy of success."

This approach to engaging an achievement network allows you to:

  • Learn how to replicate and expand on the student successes you already see
  • Generate positive word of mouth and raise the profile of your institution
  • Create advocates for your institution and grows your engaged community
  • Find opportunities to seek grants for research on issues related to student achievement and success

This represents a true "engagement-focused" approach to advancement, an approach designed not only to attract the attention of potential donors, but to identify and cultivate partners in the success and advancement of your institution's core mission. Amid a future that is challenging both financially and in terms of the broader challenges colleges and universities will need to adapt to, the institutions best positioned to move forward will be those that have a sustained commitment to engage and harness the brainpower and passion of their communities' most critical constituents.