Engaging prominent alumni
Corey Morris, Chief Alumni Evangelist, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Denmark shares how to successfully engage elite alumni — give them a platform to share their personal leadership stories.
Anyone working within HE advancement knows that engaging alumni in meaningful and mutually rewarding ways is essential to running a successful alumni relations program. But what about those alumni who are in the upper echelons, the so-called C-suite alumni who’ve risen to such an elite status that it becomes increasingly difficult to engage them in ways that are equal parts meaningful and mutually rewarding? While soliciting them for major gifts or showering them with noble titles are all recognizable options (and yes, we have done the latter), over the course of the last few years, we have fortuitously stumbled upon a more pragmatic way to engage these alumni — and the payoff has been tremendous.
A business experiment
What’s the secret sauce? Very simple — a morning leadership seminar that gives prominent alumni a platform to share their personal leadership stories. And the guardrails we’ve established to guide their talks makes it easier for them to accept the invitation:
- Career path: How did you get to where you are?
- Professional insight: What are the highs and lows of your job?
- Career advice: What advice would you offer to other up-and-coming leaders?
On the surface, this may seem like a no-brainer, but what started as a “business experiment” in 2014 has evolved into not only a signature offering, but one of our biggest engagement activities ever. Just this past week, the third iteration of this seminar played host to almost 600 participants, topping our record by more than 100. In fact, we were forced to cancel registration a month in advance due to capacity restraints; otherwise I think we could have easily exceeded 1,000 registrations.
What makes this seminar unique is that it brings some of the country’s most prominent leaders back to campus and gives them a platform to deliver a TED-like-talk to an audience consisting of fellow alumni, faculty, staff and students. That these leaders represent a broad range of industries and have diverse backgrounds only makes the setup more enticing. And while this type of engagement may not be unique to our institution, it cannot be found anywhere else in Denmark, making it a meaningful and mutually rewarding experience for this select group of alumni.
Success breeds success
A positive outcome of this seminar is that once we were able to assemble the first group of prominent alumni (which admittedly took some time) and deliver a positive experience for both them and the audience, recruiting prominent alumni the following years has become increasingly easier. The adage that “success breeds success” is truly in play — and not only for speakers. The seminar, by and large, has become a sub-brand in itself, which might explain why the 2016 seminar sold out in less than one month.
Moreover, the success of this seminar has raised our profile both internally, allowing us to tap into prominent researchers, who now jump at the chance to speak at alumni seminars. It’s also helped put us on the management map, in which alumni relations is still an emerging function. The same holds true externally as other alumni activities and seminars now experience previously unseen levels of engagement and anticipation. We’ve also seen a bump in membership, and though it’s difficult to link this directly to this seminar, it’s safe to say that there is a connection. Lastly, we encourage alumni to pay the event forward and invite a colleague to attend, thereby exposing an interesting target group to our brand and continuing education offers.
Now that we’re successfully engaging prominent alumni, the next big move is to take that engagement to the next level. To fully leverage their experience, insight, networks and affinity they have to our institution, we must continue to identify new paths that allow for these time-strapped alumni to contribute to the overall growth and development of our institution. For instance, by engaging these alumni more actively in our branding efforts, we can leverage their brand equity to help raise our own institutional profile. Additionally, we can invite them to join our advisory boards to help guide the improvement of our educational experience as well as ensure the creation of new educations that better meet the needs that their organizations will demand. At the very least, our goal is to keep them engaged and informed so that they can become useful advocates and help bring our needs and achievements into their networks.
There’s little doubt that the success of this seminar has been a tremendous boon to our alumni relations program. It’s given us the confidence to experiment even more, pursue new ambitious projects and reach out to alumni who’ve previously been deemed untouchable.
3 quick and dirty tips for engaging prominent alumni:
- Prominent alumni know prominent alumni. Our success started with one prominent alumni who had a broad network. We piggybacked his contacts and with his support, were able to tap into a network of prominent/elite alumni. Take away: It only takes one to get started.
- Prominent alumni want to give back too. Our initial “fear” was that we had to go above and beyond to engage these alumni. The reality, however, is that they want to give back in much the same was as any other alumni. Take away: The desire to give back is universal for all alumni.
- Track your rising stars. Most prominent alumni don’t become this way overnight. We’ve become increasingly better at using our prominent alumni to help us identify the rising stars that we can engage at an earlier stage. Take away: Use prominent alumni to help you identify rising stars.