Alumni Affinity Groups: How One University Formed a Highly Successful Organization

Photo from AI's Alumni Boards Conference

by Kathy Edersheim, President of Impactrics

Kathy Edersheim, President, ImpactricsHow does an alumni affinity group get started and, perhaps more importantly, what makes it sustainable beyond the initial excitement?

There are many right answers and many challenges along the way. The key is to develop some guidelines and learn from other institutions' successes as well as from their failures. The Yale Alumni Non-profit Alliance (YANA) is one example of a resounding success that can be a model for the formation of other affinity groups.

Before you begin the hard work of forming the group, consider:

  • Why this concept now?
  • What are foundational components for success and are they present?
  • What are the steps necessary to make the organization successful?
  • Who will be responsible for undertaking the effort? (Volunteer driven or institutionally driven)
  • How do you define success?

In 2010, these fundamentals seemed to be in place for YANA. Here is the story.

Getting Started

YANA started with a casual remark to me at a cocktail reception in 2010: “Hello, my name is Ken. We met once before – Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Actually, Ken had been thinking about the idea for a new shared interest (affinity) group for a while. That evening at the reception, Ken described his idea to create a platform to share best practices and provide support for anyone interested in the non-profit sector whether as a professional, a funder, or a board member. He had questions - Would there be interest? Would it be worthwhile? How could he get the group started?

The idea sounded great to me as a volunteer, and I said so right away. I encouraged Ken to pursue the idea and didn’t think much about it for the next few weeks.

A few weeks after meeting Ken, about 8,000 members of the New York Yale Club, including me, received an email that read:

The legion of Yale alums working in the nonprofit world is growing daily. Please join us in the … for an organizational meeting of nonprofit professionals to explore how we can work together to pool our resources, strategies, and energies to improve our organizations. Practitioners from all areas are welcome, including health care, education, housing, energy/environment, and the arts. Please RSVP to Club member Ken

It was a thrill to see 18 people show up on a wintery night in January to hear about the concept. Ken’s idea and his leadership were crucial components of the formation of YANA; however, an organization also requires hard work by many people, support from the institution, flexibility, and persistence. While the attendance at the meeting showed some initial interest, there were several considerations to think about as a volunteer organizer:

  • Is this an idea that reflects alumni interests?
  • Does the concept support institutional interests?
  • Is there a core mission for the group?
  • Is there strong leadership for the effort?
  • Can and will the institution support the organization with advice and counsel, opportunities to showcase to other alumni, occasional email blasts, and perhaps a small sum of money at a critical juncture?
  • How will we know if the organization is successful? What are the metrics?

In the case of YANA:

  • From personal experience, Ken had reason to believe that there would be sufficient alumni interest for the concept. More specific confirmation would come over the next year.
  • The institution was supportive of the core concept of bringing alumni together to help make the world better, though the specific mission statement would be developed over time.
  • It was clear from the start that Ken would provide visionary leadership.

Building the Foundation in Year One

With the first-round considerations addressed, it was time for planning and action. There are many steps to creating a robust organization. The group under Ken’s leadership was deliberate in moving forward to ensure a strong fundamental structure, and other organizations may be able to glean clues for success from reviewing this deliberate process.

The key steps in forming YANA were:

  • First meeting – At the first meeting following that initial email blast, there was discussion of the purpose of the group and event concepts. It was immediately established that there would be monthly gatherings to build momentum and support. The Yale Club of NYC made this possible by providing meeting space every month. This was a crucial source of support, as it made it easy and affordable to meet regularly.
  • What’s in a name? - With the high level of interest in the concept, the group needed to decide on a name that was descriptive and inclusive. They also needed a logo. It took many discussions/meetings to decide on Yale Alumni Non-profit Alliance (YANA). An alum who had been generous with her time and talent in the past helped to create a logo, and helped provide the style documents for this crucial identity and branding component.
  • Defining a mission – Shared interest in the social sector was sufficient to convene the initial meeting. However, the organization needed to determine its purpose and the mission that would be the foundation for its long-term efforts. Within a few months, YANA adopted its mission statement:

YANA's goal is to organize and leverage Yale's vast social purpose network – through convening, collaborating, and connecting – so that together we can repair our world.

  • Engaging participants – Group participation (and the meetings themselves) needed to be worthwhile for participants, so the monthly meetings were structured to include showcase opportunities for non-profits part of the time and organizational efforts such as event planning for the rest of the time. Meeting time also became an opportunity to discuss partnerships and determine how to work with partners from other institutions.
  • Spreading the word – From the beginning, the group realized that they needed to have regular communications within and beyond the active group. Someone had to volunteer to maintain the email list, prepare emails, and a newsletter.
  • Action – To fulfill the mission, there needed to be programs and initiatives that help “repair the world.” Participants volunteered to start planning events and to work with students interested in the non-profit sector. The first event, a panel discussion on Making the Transition from the Private to Nonprofit Sector, was held in July 2011, attracting a crowd of nearly 200 alumni. The invitation to the event went to 15,000 alumni in the New York City area and included a link to a survey to gauge the level of interest in a non-profit affinity group.
  • Proof of concept – The survey that went out with the invitation to the first event indicated that at least 2 out of every 3 Yale graduates are involved in social impact - whether as board members, executive directors, practitioners, or volunteers - representing an alumni population exceeding 100,000. More specifically,

YANA focuses on three unmet needs revealed in a 2011 alumni survey that drew 900+ replies. The needs were expressed along generational lines: millennials (alums age 32 and under) needed nonprofit career advice, job connections, and mentoring; Gen X (30s to early 50s) in mid-career, wanted access to financial resources and best practices in order to grow and improve their nonprofits; boomers (mid 50s and 60s) and seniors (70+) facing retirement or semi-retirement, wanted meaningful engagement as mentors, board members, connectors and donors.

  • Leadership – Having Ken as a leader was a great asset; however, there needed to be a group effort. Ken established an informal board of the most enthusiastic participants, at least six of whom self-identified at the July 2011 event. As a volunteer, I proudly joined many others in providing “behind-the-scenes” leadership, facilitating the relationship with the university, and helping to provide guidance on best practices for matters such as event organizing and naming.

Next steps

After meeting for about a year, it was clear that there was enough interest to support the organization and make a commitment to its long-term existence. There was a lot of discussion within the group about types of events that aligned with the mission and what was manageable with the limited resources of a young organization like YANA.

In addition to continuing to work on communications, YANA focused on:

  • Sustainability – The organization needed a leadership pipeline and tools for success. YANA formed committees with leadership and reached out to potential leaders of all ages. After the first few events, YANA drafted guidelines for event planning, entitled "Converting a Good Idea into a Profound Experience!"
  • It’s official – With pro bono legal counsel from a board member and her law firm, YANA filed to be a 501(c)3 with a formal board and structure in 2014, three years after the first meeting.
  • Awareness and support – YANA wanted to become a recognized entity within the university alumni community, so they publicized activities and submitted for awards. In addition, they presented to the alumni association board.
  • Programs – There needed to be a full roster of programs and events that furthered the mission of the organization. Programs included internships for students, career mentoring on campus, informative panels on a variety of social sector topics, a conference in 2014, and an annual benefit starting in 2015. The benefit has lived up to its goal of generating funds for events and to support community groups as well as student fellows.
  • Chapters – As YANA became more successful and generated interest beyond New York, alumni in other areas wanted to be engaged as well. The first chapter was formed in San Francisco in 2013.
  • Long-term Vision – To ensure that YANA had focus and direction for the next few years, they undertook a strategic planning process that considered delivering on the mission, having impact, and metrics for measuring success.

Today

Almost seven years later, the Yale Alumni Non-Profit Alliance or YANA has 8 volunteer-led chapters in the U.S. and Europe, holds over 100 events each year, and has 3,500 members. YANA is closely involved with current students and campus life through its Fellows Program, and with alumni in a wide range of career stages. This involvement is achieved through initiatives that include the annual conferences and benefits, quarterly Roundtables in NYC and the Bay Area, and a nationwide Mentorship Program. They are a diverse group, but they have in common both their Yale experiences and a passion to improve the world. YANA members share their wisdom, exchange ideas, and learn from collaborators.

Importantly, they are creating scalable, replicable models for many of their initiatives – particularly event production, chapter formation, and programmatic growth.

By all the metrics, YANA is a success:

  • High level of interest (# of members) and engagement (active volunteers)
  • Broad diversity of the membership across age, school, and ethnicity
  • Wide breadth of activities: mentorships, internships, shared information
  • New volunteers generated for organizations.
  • From the institutional perspective, YANA has engaged thousands of people (not all alumni) in a new way that benefits the broader community and supports students through internships and mentorships.
  • And many new friendships have been formed among the membership.

In 2017, Ken was awarded the university’s medal for transformational leadership on behalf of the institution. He has done a tremendous amount of work on behalf of the university in a variety of ways, including serving on the alumni board and co-chairing the task force on diversity and inclusion. All of this started with the formation and visionary leadership of YANA.

Moving Forward

This case study of YANA's success is intended to inspire you, offer crucial clues as to how to launch an affinity group in ways that enable its success, and prompt critical conversations among your colleagues. YANA is moving forward and growing thanks to the fundamental strength of the concept and the organization. To keep them on the right track, they review the foundational elements:

  • Is the organization continuing to serve its members in meaningful and fulfilling ways within its mission?
  • Is there a strong leadership pipeline?
  • Are there good communications with the membership and potential members?
  • What are the best ways to support the institution as an alumni organization?

It's all about building a community based on a shared interest and shared goals.

If you found this article useful, you might also enjoy Academic Impressions' upcoming conference Young Alumni: Establishing Lifelong Relationships and our webcast Leveraging Alumni Chapters for Increasing Engagement.