Rules of (alumni) engagement

An alumni engagement director offers advice on how to mobilize and inspire alumni during a crisis.
By: | December 28, 2020
Loyola University Maryland - Photo: Molly Dressel (Abel Communications)Photo: Loyola University Maryland

Now more than ever, colleges and universities must find ways to connect emotionally and effectively with alumni. The stakes are high, as the pandemic has forced everyone to adjust and adapt, recognizing that a strong and active alumni community is critical to recovery and long-term success.

Colleen Riopko, Loyola University Maryland

Colleen Riopko, Loyola University Maryland

Instead of viewing our current crisis as a barrier to alumni engagement, we can use this time to experiment with creative ways to build and strengthen alumni relationships. Below are a few strategies to consider as your university navigates these unprecedented times:

1. Offer opportunities to serve. 

While some alumni might not have the means to contribute financially, they might jump at the opportunity to offer expertise or serve as a mentor.

As the pandemic progressed, we shifted our focus at Loyola University Maryland to an active engagement model. Over the summer, we engaged 393 alumni volunteers. We had our young alumni call over 2,300 senior alumni and offered hundreds of virtual volunteer opportunities with our career center. We also invited alumni to reach out to families of first-year students—helping to retain the class while showcasing the strength of our community.

Importantly, we discovered our alumni responded more enthusiastically to “bite-sized” chunks of volunteerism. For example, instead of asking them to take on a full-semester intern, we have instead asked if they have a project that a student or two can support.

Regardless of the length of service, providing graduates with an opportunity to connect with their alma mater and its community will instill a sense of pride and, likely, spark future engagement and donations.

2. Reassess your communications strategy.

If you’ve been thinking about updating or overhauling your advancement communications strategy, now is the perfect time to hit the reset button. Reassess the key messages you’re pushing out through email and social media and ask if they’re meeting your current goals, or ones that were set before the pandemic.

The content you planned in early 2020 or even since COVID hit may not resonate in a world that has changed dramatically and rapidly.

At Loyola, we recognized that in the midst of uncertainty, our community craves consistency in communication. They want to hear how we’re weathering the storm, how we’re actively engaging in service, and our plans for the future. When crafting your university’s communications, consider what questions you’d want your own alma mater to answer during this crisis.

And don’t just share, listen. Ask alumni how they’re coping with the pandemic. Ask them what resources would be useful in their present situation. In listening, we open the door to new solutions and make alumni feel valued.

Ask alumni how they’re coping with the pandemic. Ask them what resources would be useful in their present situation. In listening, we open the door to new solutions and make alumni feel valued. -@LoyolaMaryland alumni engagement directorClick To Tweet

3. Signal strength.

As we navigate uncharted waters, it’s important to continue to shine a spotlight on stories and events that instill a sense of pride. Share examples of alumni and students helping their communities fight the pandemic. Offer expert advice from faculty and staff. Continue to set up educational webinars and panels. Share career resources and facilitate connections.

These times certainly call for a sense of openness and transparency. However, it is essential that you continue to highlight the successes. Alumni need to see that their alma mater has ongoing concern. And express gratitude—thank the alumni who are reaching out and giving back. Graduates will remember how your university supported them and others through this period of adversity.

4. Recognize that if at first you don’t succeed, at least you’ll have data.

If one silver lining of the pandemic, it’s been the opportunity for our alumni engagement team to think creatively and experiment in ways we’ve never been able to before. If something doesn’t succeed, we can quickly and more easily pivot or refine our approach. You don’t have that opportunity when you’re spending thousands of dollars on catering costs for live events.

Shifting the majority of our events online also gives us more accurate data on what’s working and not working. Continue to use this time to measure and track what’s successful. Eventually, “normal” life will resume, but I believe that virtual engagement will continue to provide value for alumni who don’t have the time or energy to travel to the city of their alma mater.

Through all the uncertainty, one thing remains certain: an engaged alumni base is a giving one. For all the challenges this year has brought forth, it has also brought an opportunity to innovate, instead of iterate.

Colleen Riopko is the director of alumni engagement at Loyola University Maryland, a Jesuit liberal arts school in Baltimore, Maryland. She can be reached at