Connecting with alumni

The relationship and connections between the U of S and its alumni underwent a comprehensive review recently.

The final report on alumni engagement at the university did not reveal any surprises, said Heather Magotiaux, vice-president of Advancement and Community Engagement.

"We knew we had some work to do, that's why we undertook this review," she explained. "We found that our alumni outscored most other universities in terms of the percentage who would recommend the U of S to potential students as well as the number who said the university was still relevant to their lives."

That's the good news, Magotiaux continued. "But we also found that fewer than half said they felt connected to the university today. We wanted to know what initiatives we should look at to build on the good will of our alumni."

So a consultant—Marie Earl, who has held senior alumni relations positions at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia —was hired to investigate the situation, interview alumni and create an action plan.

"Marie prepared one of the most comprehensive reports I have ever received," Magotiaux said, adding that the review highlighted five strategic priorities.

"One priority is to improve our knowledge of our alumni so that we can offer (through activities) more value to them," she said. "Second, we need to build alumni engagement through communication, like the Green & White magazine, that is lively and sophisticated. That's what our alumni want."

Magotiaux said the first two priorities send a clear message that alumni-relation activities need to be more focused on what alumni want.

The third priority is about changing the internal culture of the U of S—and talking about the benefits engaged alumni provide to the university community. "Often people think alumni engagement means giving money. We are grateful for financial support, but there are a host of other ways alumni can be involved. They can be mentors to students, participate in outreach and engagement events, provide experiential learning opportunities and donate to the university."

The fourth priority stresses the importance of creating connections between alumni and students. Magotiaux said there is an opportunity for building a sense of community between students and alumni, for example in alumni mentorship of students.

The fifth priority is better engaging alumni of influence with the university in order to engage the broader alumni community. This is an area that will require a cultural shift for the university, Magotiaux explained.

"We tend not to boast. The reality is that we need to stop thinking of it (sharing successes) as bragging; it's sharing and telling. We need to build a culture where we share these successes for each other."

The same culture needs to exist in the alumni community too, she continued. "Who has more of a stake in the reputation of the university than alumni?"

Students are students for only a short time, she said, but once they graduate they are alumni for life. "It should be a bragging point for them. They earned the right to call themselves U of S alumni. We need to remind them, and us, of that."

The report also set criteria for assessing the effectiveness of all alumni activities. "The criteria will look at how we allocate resources, engage alumni and strengthen connections. What's the call to action, what do we want them (alumni) to do? We have to apply this lens to everything and determine how it is contributing and if it is the best way."

The review outlined a three-phase strategy over the course of the next five years. The first phase, Magotiaux said, will take place over the next 18 months to two years, during which time the Alumni Relations team will build capacity, examine how resources are spent and implement specific tactics related to further engaging alumni volunteers who are already connected with the university.

Another immediate action item Magotiaux mentioned is changing how alumni are referred to on campus. "We talk about faculty, staff and students as members of the campus community, and we need to include alumni as part of the internal community too."

Alumni relations, she said, should be a campus-wide priority as it is a clear indicator of success. "I can't think of a successful university that does not have a strongly connected alumni base … We should never lose sight of the value of our alumni."
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