Start a Young Alumni Council? Yes or No?

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Ashlyn Sowell was a faculty member at AI’s conference on Strengthening, Strategy and Growing Engagement for Alumni Boards. This article was sparked by conversation among schools at the event who were considering the next steps for adding a board or council to their young alumni programs. Some critical questions were raised; here, we start to answer them.

Should You Start a Young Alumni Council? The Answer is Maybe

Volunteer groups can be a great asset, but do require cultivation and meaningful work to engage with your institution. Here we will talk more about how Gettysburg College made its decision and what the outcome has been.

Gettysburg College has a strong history with its alumni board, dating back many years. Around 2008, alumni relations staff began thinking about ways to engage young alumni who made up a large percentage of the overall alumni population and had  unique ways that they wanted to interact with their alma mater.  As such, a proposal was made to the Board of Trustees, and we created the BOLD Council (Burgians of the Last Decade), a young alumni council of 25 members.

The council’s strategies include ways to engage alumni through communications, interaction with current students, giving, and career networking.  The group works in tandem with the Alumni Board of Directors, and has representation on the Alumni Board as well as the Board of Trustees, ensuring a young alumni voice for both the advisory and governing bodies.  The Council has now been running successfully for five years and has had successful leadership transitions. It is now a sought-after volunteer position for the College.

We initially had ambitious plans for the Council and they had unbridled enthusiasm! Both staff and volunteers had to adjust their expectations to get the right balance and be productive.

Pros and Cons of Starting a Young Alumni Council

Looking back on the last few years, we have outlined some pros and cons of the BOLD Council at Gettysburg and some tips to consider:

  • Pro—Expanded Outreach.  A young alumni board or council can help with individual peer-to-peer outreach, connecting the institution to more key young alumni shortly after graduation. This outreach expands and strengthens the connections alumni have with each other and your institution and means less catch-up later in their alumni lifecycle!
  • Con—Rapidly Changing Life Situations.  Young alumni may be very enthusiastic about serving on your board at the start of their terms, but because life circumstances change rapidly during this stage of life (moves, new jobs, marriage, children, etc.), their volunteering ability may wane.  Have a good “check-in” system in place where a board leader or staff member routinely asks members about their experience on the board and leaves space for members to express any concerns about their life changes.  In addition, it is also a great idea to establish term limits when implementing your new board.
  • Pro—Enthusiasm.  Young alumni board members can easily translate their enthusiasm for your institution into educating their peers on the importance of philanthropy.
  • Con—Lack of Board Experience.  Most likely, young alumni do not have experience  serving on a volunteer board. It will take time, energy, and resources to help them navigate this newfound responsibility.
  • Pro—Support for giving programs and challenges.  The young alumni serving on your board should be well-versed in your annual philanthropic goals and strategy.  They can become your go-to advocates when planning giving programs, communications strategies, and giving challenges.  Don’t be afraid to ask them to deliberately “like” and “share” your social media messages and emails.
  • Con—Weekend and Evening Hours.  Most meetings with young alumni boards will need to take place during weekend and evening hours.  Young alumni typically do not have jobs or positions that grant them weekday flexibility yet.

So, What Should You Consider When Making This Decision?

  • Do you already have highly functioning volunteer boards and councils? If not, you might want to solidify those groups or phase them out before starting something new.
  • Do you have the staff resources, time and budget to support a new volunteer effort? If not, you will want to bolster those efforts. Volunteer groups take a lot of staff investment and in addition to recruiting and training your council members, you’ll need to prepare for meaningful meetings and follow-up on all of their good ideas.  Alternatively, you can try adding a few young alumni to a current leadership group or designate a specific position to a young graduate.
  • Do you have a clear expectation for this group (ex. by-laws or a constitution) and have you communicated that to the volunteers (job descriptions, term limits)? If not, you will want to think through and draft these documents first.  At Gettysburg College, we have a position description as well as BOLD Council Policies and Procedures.
  • Do you have a good array of volunteer opportunities for young alumni? If so, you might not need/want to begin a council. Perhaps your young volunteers are fully engaged in the life of the college. If not, this might be a great experience and also give you some needed feedback for your alumni office.

Closing Advice

  • If you are ready to start a young alumni council at your institution, think about reaching out to young alumni volunteers, already involved in other ways, to form a focus group to help you with your initial plans.  If a few of these volunteers stay engaged with you throughout the planning process, they can easily slip in to leadership positions on your initial council.
  • Policies and procedures can change throughout the stages of your council. Don’t be afraid to survey your council leaders and members; they may have some great suggestions to help improve how the council is structured and run. The BOLD Council has seen several strategies and policies change since its inception, and we are all the stronger because of our willingness to be flexible and adapt.

Gettysburg College is in the public phase of a comprehensive campaign with a goal of $150 million. One of our goals is to groom the leaders for the next generation and the next campaign. We feel that the BOLD Council is a great first step!