Students are students for only a few years, but graduates are alumni for life. Schools that want a long-term relationship with alumni need to find ways to keep the spark alive.
Business schools have always loved their alumni— those passionate, committed graduates who serve their alma maters by recruiting new students, acting as mentors, making corporate contacts, and providing financial support. "Strategically speaking, alumni can bring great talent and wisdom to the institution," says Joanne Shoveller, associate dean of advancement and alumni relations at INSEAD, with locations in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. "Alumni are the best people to promote the brand—they are the brand." But these days, schools are putting even more effort into making sure that their alumni love them back. They aren't wooing their grads by sending chocolates and flowers, but by providing them with opportunities to connect—with the classmates, faculty, sports programs, and campuses where students spent some of their most memorable days.
The key to making those connections is offering alumni a diverse array of opportunities, says Tom Monaghan, executive director of alumni relations at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Following a "six C's" model he borrowed from Notre Dame, he looks for activities that promote careers, continuing education, Catholic spirituality, and community service; that create camaraderie; and that appeal to current students.
"The theory is that, at different points in their lives, alumni will react positively to one of these C's," says Monaghan. "Historically, alumni relations would just provide golf outings and happy hours— and you need those for the social piece—but we want relationships that are so much deeper now."
Schools with a mostly regional alumni base can concentrate on opportunities close to home; those with a more international student body have to find ways to reach out globally. In either case, their efforts can pay off handily.
"An alumni network is one place where there's no competition," says Paul Danos, dean and Laurence F. Whittemore Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. "Your alumni are yours, and other schools' alumni are theirs, so you have an open field. If you invest in better programs, you get the benefit."
Following are an assortment of ideas schools use to win the hearts of their alumni and maintain solid, committed relationships for a lifetime.
Create a distinctive educational experience. Danos credits the school's high rate of annual giving— typically about 70 percent— to the specific experience students have when they're at Tuck. Classes are small, MBA students all live on campus, and the small hamlet of Hanover doesn't provide many distractions, so students develop a deep sense of community.
While larger and more urban schools might not replicate that ambience, any institution can work to create a special experience for its students. To encourage tightknit communities, the school might maintain small cohorts of students or business-themed dorms; to create a unique brand of business education, it might craft a particular mix of courses and global consulting opportunities.
Today's trend toward hybrid and distance learning programs could change the exact quality of the educational experience, Danos observes. If students never or rarely come to campus, how does a school make them feel part of the alumni family? "We're still working out how to deliver a distance program and still maintain that affiliation," Danos says.
Make it a priority to get contact information. "Tuck has approximately 10,000 alumni, and we know where virtually all of them are," says Danos. It's key, he notes, to get contact information from students before they graduate and to encourage them to update that information every year. Tuck relies on the help of volunteer class agents to help the school stay in touch.
Schools that don't have contact information for all their graduates are using a variety of strategies to fill in the blanks. For instance, Saint Joseph's offers alumni discounted pricing to events and gives them access to online content that no unregistered individuals can see. The school also holds contests for grads who register on the Facebook page. In the past, prizes have included iPads, but the school is looking at bigger rewards, like free trips. "We want to get their attention," says Monaghan.
Reach out to younger alums. "We're focusing on new faces and young faces," says Monaghan. "In development, the goal is often to work very deeply with a defined small set of potential benefactors. At alumni relations, we want to cast a wide net. I'd like to get all 59,000 of our alumni engaged in some way, shape, or form." Monaghan notes that it's essential to secure their permanent email addresses, which will probably change less often for young alums than their physical addresses.
The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia also focuses on young alumni— BizEd May/June 2013 35 while they're still students. "We have an alumni orientation before they graduate," says Lizann Rode, executive director of alumni relations. "We have a power dinner series, where high-profile alumni come back and have dinner with small groups of current students. We invite them into the alumni LinkedIn group the January before they graduate, and we give them the tutorial on Wharton Connect, which is our mobile alumni app. We start to create connections for them with alumni before they leave, so they see our office as a source of support."
The school also reaches young alums through happy hours billed as "Pub Outside of Philadelphia," modeled after the Wharton Pub experience generally held Friday nights on campus. "A member of my team who's focused on young alumni travels to cities like New York and San Francisco to hold these pub events for first-year alumni," Rode explains.
Provide lifelong learning. These days it's common for business schools to offer their alumni ongoing educational opportunities. For instance, Tuck puts on a lecture series around the country where alumni can come for no charge. Saint Joseph's provides traditional in-person educational events, such as roundtables, panels, and industry-focused sessions; it's currently exploring options for nontraditional online education on topics like photography or buying a house. The school is also looking into offering continuing education credits through campus events or online programs, to give alums another incentive for staying connected.
Still other schools have made bolder investments in lifelong learning, allowing alumni to take MBA or executive education classes at a greatly discounted price—or no cost. Wharton was one of the first to announce that its MBAs could come back and take an executive education course for free every seven years. But while alumni loved the notion of free ongoing education, says Rode, they weren't always eager to return to campus to get it.
So Wharton launched the Lifelong Learning tour, which was piloted in 2011 and has a goal of visiting 20 cities in 24 months. To get a sense of what subjects alumni were interested in pursuing, the school held a Topic Tournament online, asking people to post topics they were interested in and inviting everyone to vote for their favorites. The school also conducted an 18-month needs analysis through online surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. Once the topics were determined, the vice dean of innovation began designing the content, which was adjusted for regional preferences.
Since 2012, the tour has taken Wharton to Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, London, and Munich, and will soon make stops in New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City. "In all of these regions, we did Topic Tournaments and custom-designed programs," says Rode. "So, for instance, in Los Angeles, David Bell did a presentation on digital marketing. We videotape the presentations, upload them to the website, and make them available to the public. We're creating a Lifelong Learning library."
In addition to holding the tour, Wharton sponsors Global Forums twice a year to provide educational events for alums around the world. Content for these three-day programs is also determined through interviews and focus groups. This year, the school will hold its May forum in Tokyo and its October forum in Paris.
Host reunions and networking events. Like many schools, INSEAD holds class reunions at five-year intervals—and they're popular. "Five years, ten years, or 50 years later, what alumni love is reconnecting with classmates and experiencing the emotions and sense of wonder they had when they were in the classroom," says Shoveller. Since INSEAD's Singapore campus is only about a decade old, most of the reunions take place on the European campus, but she expects there to be more Singapore events in the future.
Three years ago, Saint Joseph's scrapped the traditional five-year reunion in favor of an event that would draw alumni back annually. The weekend of Hawktoberfest offers class parties one evening, as well as many other activities: a tailgate event, a kids' corner, brunches, lectures, and sporting events. In the most recent year, 1,800 people attended. Monaghan believes that number is boosted because children are welcome, so alums with young families find it easier to attend.
Saint Joseph's also provides alums with networking opportunities such as Hawk2Hawk, a gathering typically held once a semester at a fun Philadelphia venue. Recent events have taken place at the top of the Comcast Center and in the dinosaur hall of the local museum. The cool factor of the venues is important, Monaghan notes, because "it's all about the value proposition. Our alumni are really busy, and they have ten other things competing for their time. We have to ask ourselves, 'What's in it for them?'"
Since 2008, Saint Joseph's also has sponsored Global Community Day, when teams of alumni, students, and parents gather to perform acts of service on the same day in multiple locations. Last year, that meant 70 sites in three countries. Because so many alums are local, most of the service sites are in Philadelphia; volunteers meet on campus for a kickoff meeting and are bused to locations around the city. They return at day's end for a wrap-up session that includes pizza and a chance to reflect on their contributions.
"A lot of schools, particularly those with a religious affiliation, offer students a chance to do community service," says Monaghan. "Alumni often find there's no easy outlet for service, and they miss it. So this is another way we can keep them connected to the school."
Give alums a chance to connect with current students. "Many alumni say that what they want to do more than anything else is help the next generation of students," says Monaghan. "That might mean helping them find jobs, figure out what careers they want, or understand what it means to live in New York City." To promote connections between past and current students, Saint Joseph's arranges for events like Dinner with Hawks. At this combination etiquette dinner and networking event, each table holds four students and four alumni, organized by their career interests.
Tuck also offers graduates a chance to mingle with current students. For instance, every year, Tuck brings about 100 alumni to campus to serve as visiting executives. "Some of them stay for an extra day and hold office hours to meet with students," says Danos.
In addition, Tuck allows current students to search the alumni database to find graduates with matching interests and then get in touch with them directly. "I'd say two-thirds of our job placements are done through the formal system, where students interview with recruiters who come to campus," says Danos. "And maybe one-third are done in a more personal way through specialized contact."
Design websites dedicated to alumni. These sites allow alums to interact with each other, update personal contact information, and find out about upcoming events. Often they also include content— such as a series of webinars that Wharton creates for its site—that only alums can access.
Dartmouth has recently upgraded its alumni website, MyTuck.dartmouth.edu, to make it highly interactive. Not only can alums update their profiles, read faculty research, find career building tools, register for upcoming events, and search for classmates by areas of interest or expertise, they can sign up for online discussions, either among themselves or with the input of a Tuck professor.
"It's sort of an expertise-matching system," says Danos. "The site is designed to allow closed, small-scale discussions where people with the same interests can talk about their issues. This part of the site is still in its formative stages, but we believe it will be the wave of the future."
Support alumni groups. Especially for schools that have widely distributed student bases, it's key to work with the alumni groups that might flourish anywhere in the world. For instance, INSEAD now boasts 43 separate national alumni associations, all of them independent organizations that are designed to suit the local culture and interests, says Shoveller. The school also promotes a number of independent alumni clubs built around specific interests, such as energy, entrepreneurship, and global private equity.
To help alums find each other no matter where they are, INSEAD has launched a mobile app that "has really helped alumni make personal and professional connections," says Shoveller.
Maintain international outreach. Schools with mostly regional alumni bases tend to concentrate their energies on local events; schools with international populations have to Many alumni say that what they want to do more than anything else is help the next generation of students. —Tom Monaghan, Saint Joseph's University David Koscheck/Glow Im ages 38 May/June 2013 BizEd make sure farflung alumni still feel that close connection.
"Today about 35 percent of our students and 30 percent of our faculty are from outside the U.S.," says Danos. "When they come here, they all have the same basic experience, so we want them to have the same basic experience after they graduate, even if they move far away." Danos personally helps maintain that connection by traveling frequently to cities where alumni congregate. This spring, for instance, he was scheduled to appear at alumni events in D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Munich, and Zurich within a few weeks.
The school has also set up regional advisory boards—one in Europe and one in Latin America— designed to strengthen relations with alumni and aid in recruiting new students. The school plans to launch a new regional board in Asia this year.
Similarly, INSEAD makes an effort to reach widely scattered alumni by planning events in various cities around the world. Not only does this allow alumni to connect with each other regionally, it allows them to meet across generations, which many find appealing, says Shoveller. She adds, "Our intent is to offer a suite of activities, so alumni can have reunions that are regionally based, reunions that are class-based, and other networking events. Providing that multidimensional interaction has been very successful."
New Metrics, New Goals While business schools must constantly come up with fresh ideas to make connections with alumni, it's clear that they also have to devise ways to measure how successful they've been at making those connections. Thus, more alumni relations departments are becoming more analytical, even fanatical, about tracking alumni engagement.
For instance, Monaghan wants to know who's gone to a dinner, who's written a check, and who's mentored a student—and how those activities have led to higher student recruitment and more job offers. "I'm trying to paint the whole picture," he says. "Ultimately, like any organization, we have to be able to show the return the institution is getting on what we're doing."
To this end, he tracks attendees at all of the school's approximately 100 annual events and cross-references them against the alumni database. "This allows us to see how many attendees were young alums—graduates from the last ten years—and how many were from different regions or colleges. Our year-end goals list not only overall engagement, but young alumni engagement, as they are the future."
Rode also spends a lot of time pondering ROI. She says, "One thing we're thinking about is, what defines engagement? Are alumni engaged if they come to a reunion? If they visit campus once every five years? If they go to one event in their home cities but never come back to campus?"
While she considers LinkedIn an "amazing vehicle" for helping the school stay in touch with alums, it also provides a way for classmates to keep in touch with each other without Wharton's intermediation. "I have 70 independent alumni clubs that are holding events and communicating with my alumni, and sometimes I don't even know about it," Rode says. "So we could have alumni who never come to campus, and who hire five Wharton graduates every year, and they feel very connected—but we don't know about them. I would love to figure out how to capture that data."
As burgeoning social media outlets make it easier for alumni to stay in touch independently of their alma maters, every alumni relations office must re-examine its raison d'etre. Monaghan thinks that's a good thing.
"All of us are asking ourselves, 'What's our value? What do we bring to the table?'" he says. "We're forced to be more creative in our programming and really provide value to our alumni. We're forced to focus on what's in it for them. We're forced to be better at what we do."