For a long time, the word “alumni” referred only to graduates of schools and universities. Over time, however, we have increasingly used the term to describe individuals who share almost any specific past experience. Recently, I’ve been privileged to work on a project that revealed emerging practices in alumni engagement for charitable foundations, scholarly and artistic residency programs, fellowships, and other nonprofit organizations.
Funded by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, my GG+A colleagues and I led the creation of an alumni outreach strategy for the Bellagio Center in Italy. For decades, the Bellagio Center has hosted residents and conference participants in support of The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission: “to promote the well-being of humanity around the world.”
During this project, I interviewed the Bellagio and Rockefeller Foundation staff members and alumni. I also spoke with representatives from nine other diverse organizations with non-traditional alumni communities. I am pleased to share the insights I gathered during that process in a white paper titled Engaging Alumni Outside Academia: Emerging Practices in Foundations, Fellowships, and Other Nonprofit Organizations. I’ve highlighted some key takeaways below.
Identifying “Non-Traditional” Alumni Communities
In helping to craft the Bellagio Center’s alumni strategy, we considered academic alumni communities (like those at universities and schools) to be “traditional” alumni groups. There is a long history of these alumni organizing to support their alma mater and one another, aided in most cases today by professional staff members. In the white paper, I tried to inform discussion about so-called “non-traditional” alumni communities, to share some of the principles learned in traditional settings, and to describe how these principles apply to non-academic institutions.
Applying Universal Alumni Engagement Principles
There are certain alumni engagement principles that apply almost universally, such as using a shared experience to drive a sense of identity that lasts beyond the experience itself. Other common principles include prioritizing ways to interact with alumni, creating a strong brand for the alumni organization, and making communications relevant by providing alumni with information they cannot obtain elsewhere. In the paper, I focus on unique opportunities for organizations with diverse purposes and missions to apply these principles.
Adopting Beneficial Practices
This field is in its formative stages, and while some practices are certainly beneficial, it is yet not clear whether others are “best” or merely “prevailing” practices. The clearly beneficial practices include highlighting for alumni early on their lifelong connection to the organization, a special status that distinguishes them from other stakeholders. I also recommend specific ways to compensate for the short amount of time that alumni may have interacted directly with an organization.
Building a Community of Practice
In the future, organizations will adapt established practices and imagine news ones to engage these alumni. These same organizations will benefit from regularly sharing their engagement strategies, as well as their successes and challenges, with one another. For this reason, I believe the time is right for establishing a more formal community of practice that enables them to learn from one another’s experiences.