Adapting alumni engagement: 2021 and beyond, Q&A with Andy Shaindlin, Vice President for Alumni Relations, Brown University

Andy Shaindlin, Vice President for Alumni Relations, recently spoke with us about the alumni engagement program at Brown University and the innovative ideas his team is using not only to respond to this new reality of virtual engagement but also to expand and improve their efforts to reach a broad constituency. Andy has graciously responded to questions submitted during our webinar and shares some great resources below. If you wish to listen to our discussion, click here: link. For more information about work GG+A and others are doing in engagement and to find out how we might help you, reach out to us via our website: here. Many thanks to Andy for being so generous with his time and expertise!


Q: Regarding alumni advisory boards do you have any suggestions for best practice recruitment with EDI lens? How do you have a diverse and inclusive board—formal terms?

A: Formalize goals for diversity, so you have milestones to achieve, then ensure that a joint group (eg subcommittee or task force) of staff and volunteers track this regularly. Report out (to trustees, senior leaders, etc.) your progress. This will create added urgency and commitment internally, which usually results in goals being met and exceeded.

Q: How do you determine which newest alumni you outreach to through the Alumni Success Officer?

A: Initially we surveyed the most recent three graduating classes. Longer-term, we may focus more deeply on supporting the most recent graduating class, but we also need to reach back and engage students so they are already aware of some resources when they graduate. This entails a partnership with our Deans and campus life leaders.

Q: Is the premise of the alumni success officer, more broadly, ensuring current students do not become lost, that the function of an alumni network is most important, as opposed to students’ wellness, school spirit, or other more emotional needs? Is that right? Are there trade-offs?

A: It’s not directly tied to school spirit, wellness or emotional state of mind, etc. It’s pragmatic in terms of 1) modeling alumni engagement and support, so these new grads ‘pay it forward’ later; 2) revealing specific sources of info and help (Clubs, mentors, online tools, LinkedIn) which might not be top of mind for new grads; 3) making intros/referrals (eg, “Five alumni work at the firm you just joined – and two of them are partners. I can introduce you via email.”): and 4) ‘training’ young alums to understand and remember that the alumni community is “always on” and is everywhere – an investment in the lifelong aspect of alumnihood.

Q: Can you share the volunteer engagement toolkit, or at least the table of contents of what you have included in the toolkit?

A: Happy to share: https://sites.google.com/brown.edu/virtualengagementtoolkit/

Q: How did you measure the success of the alum success officer after the first year?

A: It will be one year in May. Three areas we are tracking initially are:

1) interest (88% of recent grads who answered our survey said they are interested or very interested in remaining engaged; 64% wanted to be contacted by the ASO);

2) partnership & collaboration forged (e.g., with student organizations, academic units, others in Advancement and alumni groups); and

3) individual outcomes from personal outreach (e.g., sign-ups for career advising; profiles updated; jobs posted; new alumni groups formed (e.g., an international online group of new grads).

Q: Have we learned during COVID that regional alumni networks are not really as important as traditionally thought? Since digital has taught us that any alumnus can join us from anywhere and anytime, are regional hub models going to be obsolete?

A: I think they remain important and useful but will need to “hybridize.” E.g., they can host or sponsor regionally relevant content but it should have some digital component and should model the “partnership” mandate I spoke about. E.g., the School of Architecture can partner with the San Francisco Alumni Club and the Alumni in Real Estate shared interest group, to host a webinar and streamed walking tour of a downtown neighborhood where realty and occupancy rates were affected by COVID, etc.

Q: How are you dealing with your recent graduates who might not have been able to celebrate their graduation in person? How do you keep their morale high in hopes to continue to engage them in the future?

A: Tough to do, obviously. We start by empathizing but then pivot quickly to opportunities and resources. The disappointment over the missed commencement experience is real, but also it’s temporal and will recede later. If anything, the shared experience of being “the COVID kids” could potentially be used to bind them more closely together. They will always be the “COVID classes”…

Q: What were indicators you found, that let you know you reached your ‘increased partnerships’ goal?

A: We should have set some numerical goals for partnerships, but instead we identified (internally) a small number of likely/desired campus partners. I keep an informal running tally of units we have worked within a range of ways, so there’s a kind of scorecard, but again, it’s internal. Next year, I think we could use it to set benchmarks. But note, the number of partnerships matters much less (to me) than the outcome of the collaboration. So I’d suggest focusing on what a partnership results in, and not just counting joint activities.

Q: When partnering with departments, is there a conflict when looking at projects which enhance the budget versus projects that provide budget relief? If so, how to do handle the conflict.

A: No conflict yet. We focus on the content and ensuring it is relevant to 1) alumni interests or needs, and 2) the university’s ability to add something to the alum’s understanding or experience. E.g., if we partner with a center on campus that studies the role of race in society, we focus on linking Brown’s research and teaching expertise with current events. Budgeting and finances get negotiated and worked out along the way, but we don’t pick or choose partners with this consideration in mind, initially.

Q: Do you have examples of organizations without a culture of alumni leadership…then bringing alumni into the strategic planning process…

A: These tend to be examples from outside of higher education. See my 2018 GG+A white paper at https://www.grenzebachglier.com/2018/07/18/shaindlin-engaging-alumni/ for thoughts on how to approach alumni strategy at organizations with less-developed alumni culture.

Q: Do you have a target demographic within the new alumni group for your new Alumni Success Officer?

A: We surveyed the most recent three graduating classes, but the initial concept was to focus on the newest grads while reaching out to students who are still enrolled but approaching their own graduation.

Q: Can you share your new metrics to track alumni engagement?

A: This is an internal document, which is a pilot (since we more or less started from scratch). And it needs further updating since we now are doing engagement online only. Email me to discuss metrics, though – anytime.

Q: I’m curious to know about where philanthropy starts to feature in your discussions with Alumni. Particularly with the Alumni Success Officer role (great position!!). Do they start the conversation?

A: The ASO is not expected to explicitly introduce giving into the conversation. The Annual Fund and others will certainly solicit these alumni. The goal, in part, is the give alumni a great answer to their likely question about Brown, i.e., “What have you done for me lately?” The main purpose is to 1) ensure the first contact they have post-graduation is about them, and not about the University’s needs; and 2) serve their short-term interests so their long-term attitude reflects appreciation and recognition that Brown continues to support them even when they are no longer students.

Q: We’ve been migrating our activities to an online format… we need to develop from scratch new activities in virtual environments, what recommendations would you give for that?

A: See the Virtual Engagement Toolkit to see some of the ideas we shared with our volunteer leaders:

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