College graduates are used to hearing from their alma maters with requests about donations and to cheer on the school athletic teams. But lately, alumni from a growing number of institutions are hearing the sounds of alumni offices retooling themselves to offer an unprecedented array of services and programs.
It's high time, says Andrew Shaindlin, a consultant who previously directed the alumni association at the California Institute of Technology. "People's issues revolve around 'I just lost a job,' 'I'm looking for resources to help with an aging parent,' 'I need to find other parents with toddlers,'" Shaindlin points out. "You have to create the expectation that this service is something that the alma mater provides—and to change the impression that the school only contacts me when they want money."
Tim Pavish, vice president for university relations at Washington State University, graduated from WSU 30 years ago and agrees that college and university alumni offices have entered a brave new world. "Back then, most of the programming was about university spirit, having fun, and things like that," he recalls. "Over time, things have changed. The alumni joining our alumni association have a love for their alma mater, but they are looking for a tangible return on investment beyond the feel-good part."
While private institutions routinely court alumni to build endowments, Pavish adds that reaching out to graduates has become a priority even for public institutions like his. "As state funding decreases, philanthropic support becomes more important," he admits.
Scott Westerman, associate vice president for alumni relations at Michigan State University, has gotten the same message. "We're moving [away] from an affinity organization in which you used to pay $45 dues to give us the privilege of spamming you with insurance and credit card offers. That's not what our alumni want, and we're focused now on trying to be the coolest alumni association on the face of the Earth and an effective provider of services."
Being cool has meant creating amenities such as an iPhone app connected to a GPS system that will let alums around the country find MSU-friendly places to watch football and basketball games. Other new services for MSU alumni are decidedly down to earth. "When you move to a new town, we'll help you get settled. If you're in mid-career, we'll help you find a vocation," Westerman explains. MSU Alumni Association has trademarked the phrase, "Your network for life!"
Other alumni offices—using a combination of creativity and new media—are casting their nets wider and in ways that were once beyond reach. Stanford offers a full alumni participation menu, from a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities to an online book discussion salon. Brown provides free college counseling to children of alumni. WSU offers career counseling tailored to graduates 40 and older, and Emory University (Ga.) provides live teleconferences on career-related issues.
The economic upheaval of the past three years has provided an incentive for alumni offices to devise new programs or expand existing ones focused on employment and careers. "Alumni organizations across the country have done research, and it's come back that career services are one of the top needs that alumni identify," WSU's Pavish points out. "We provide alumni with support as they change careers or try to elevate their positions in their fields, and they tell us that this is a benefit they value greatly."
Besides providing in-house counseling and online networking opportunities for alumni of all ages, WSU has partnered with Alameda, Calif.-based career consultants at The North 40 Network, which targets middle-aged alumni who may have been displaced by the recent recession or are simply looking for a smoother road to retirement. "It's tailor made for where individuals are in their careers and the challenges they're facing," says Pavish, adding that WSU's over-40 alumni receive discounts on the charges for North 40's coaching and planning services.
The career issues of alumni have also kept Alumni Career Services Coordinator David Isbell busy at Michigan State. When his job was created almost three years ago, the national economic recession was just beginning. "My first day at work I was told, 'Here's this stack of resumes. Call these people.' It hasn't let up," says Isbell, who handles up to five one-hour counseling sessions with alumni a day.
To help unemployed alumni cope with hard times, Isbell's office has been offering "Economic Stimulus" memberships, which waive the standard alumni dues. Isbell, who has spent a dozen years in alumni relations, observes that older alumni have been especially affected in recent years. "I've seen a lot more people in their 50s than before I came here," he says.
Emory University, meanwhile, has launched a popular series of weekly or bi-weekly "Coach Chats," teleconferences—available afterwards as podcasts—that cover topics from negotiating a salary in the current economic environment to networking effectively and landing a first interview. Cassandra Young, Emory's coordinator of alumni programs, notes that the live teleconferences are drawing three to four dozen alumni participants. "They're valuable because they offer that coaching component, rather than pushing out job openings," she says.
Lynda Smith, who graduated in '86, took full advantage of what Emory had to offer when she was laid off from a management job two years ago. "I participated in every aspect—one-on-one meetings with a career counselor, and dozens of the Coach Chats," recalls Smith, who says that Emory's alumni services more than matched the outplacement services she was offered by her former employer.
"And they're nice," Smith adds. "When you're in a job search, you're very vulnerable. A job search can knock you off your pins economically and socially, but also emotionally. They're very sensitive to that."
The rapid development of online communities and the social media tools connecting them has let schools make quantum leaps in engaging alumni in job-related matters, and more. Washington State has 6,200 of its alumni registered on LinkedIn, where they can connect with each other according to their interests and network more broadly with non-WSU LinkedIn members.
"The power of the alumni network is multiplied by the fact that the alumni have powerful connections to people who are not alumni," notes Shaindlin, who made extensive use of LinkedIn when he led Caltech's alumni office. "What's happening with a lot of tools like LinkedIn is the development of online community management as a best practice in alumni relations."
That marks a departure, Shaindlin continues, from the university dictating what alumni hear, either through mailings or publications, or more recently, through e-mail alerts, Twitter, and official Facebook sites. "Organizations have started to understand that this is a listening environment and that not all the information comes from the university," Shaindlin insists. "Alumni are interacting in ways that are meaningful to them. By listening and participating in the discussions, alumni offices can find out what alumni need and provide services and design programs in response."
Michigan State has seen its LinkedIn alumni community expand from 3,000 to 20,000 over the past two years, Isbell reports. "There's lots of interaction, and a lot of alumni who put jobs out there." And for those not yet comfortable with LinkedIn, the alumni office offers one-on-one training sessions as well as presentations to larger alumni groups.
MSU also has started an online "entrepreneurial network," currently in beta testing. "We're out there looking for people who are looking to do a start-up," says Westerman. "Through this social network, you can announce, 'I'm an MSU grad who wants to start a business,'" with the aim, he explains, of generating interest in the form of everything from mentoring to funding.
Other institutions are just getting started. Tom Chaves, director of advancement services at Lehigh University (Pa.), has more questions than answers about where social media fits into the school's outreach efforts. "We're still trying to figure out where Lehigh plays in the life of its alums and what kind of online presence and social network we want. Who do we want in there and why? What are they going to do in there?"
For starters, Chaves eschewed public sites such as LinkedIn and established a private network run off Lehigh's own server. He also primed the pump by creating more than 200 affinity groups for alumni to choose from, such as the college's individual athletic teams or its various fraternities and sororities. Almost 40 alumni-generated groups have joined as well, including Alumni in Beijing and a Choral Arts group. After one year, the online network has grown to 6,400 members.
Lehigh's cautious approach to social networking does not surprise Shaindlin. "Universities and colleges are relatively conservative about updating their processes. They wait for well-tested, and frankly, very safe approaches before they start to implement changes," he says. "It's still not clear to some university leaders that it's OK to have alumni congregate under a banner that's not in the university's control."
Shaindlin adds that at Caltech, his office even used LinkedIn to connect alumni with students to encourage mentoring and generate job leads for new graduates. And alumni offices at Emory and Tufts University (Mass.) have gone even further in connecting with their undergraduates. "Reaching young alumni is one of our top priorities. If you don't engage people right away, there's too much competition for their time," says Samantha Snitow, the Tufts Alumni Association's assistant director for young alumni and student programming.
Tufts alumni officers introduce themselves to incoming undergraduates during orientation week. Near the end of sophomore year, the program stages a Halfway There celebration with mocktails, since most students are under 21, and the constant contact reaches a crescendo with 100 days to go in senior year, when the alumni association hosts a champagne toast.
At Emory, the alumni association sponsors a reception at the end of senior year that includes a "Coke Toast," a reminder that Coca Cola's founding family has long been the school's most generous benefactor. That event is just the culmination of the ongoing Senior Year Experience offered by the alumni office.
"The goal is to make senior year the best of all years and have students leave with good memories," says Emory's Young. The program, run like one of the school's regional alumni chapters, presents events from mixers and dinners with Atlanta alumni to educational programs. A Life 101 series offers seminars in areas such as personal finance and business etiquette.
"A lot of it is getting the brand of the alumni association out on campus," Young explains. "We want to start getting our name into their heads and start our engagement with them early."
As far as Casson Wen, a 2010 Emory graduate, is concerned, that philosophy is working. "It shows that the Emory community is more than Emory College," he says, referring to the College of Arts and Sciences at the university. "You're meeting people outside of the bubble in which undergraduates tend to live, and it's inspiring to meet people who were where you are and are now giving back to the Emory community."
Whether the new outreach efforts of alumni offices translate into increased giving remains to be seen, but the alumni officers making those efforts are hopeful. The dues-paying membership in WSU's alumni association has increased by more than 30 percent to 22,000 since 2009.
"The numbers don't lie," says WSU's Pavish, but he sees a larger potential payoff. "The more people you get involved, the more they come to understand the contributions that the university makes in research and education. They begin to find areas that interest them and begin to support those areas financially." In recent years, Pavish has seen that support for WSU's recently created organic agriculture degree, as well as a new school for global animal health.
"The principal of networking is to encourage reciprocity," MSU's Isbell says of his office's focus on job counseling and networking. "We hope that when these people land on their feet, they will give to us."
Emory alumna Lynda Smith, happily employed once again, has already shown her appreciation for the alumni office's job-related resources. Earlier this year, she joined the university's alumni board.
Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer and alumnus of Yale.