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Shaking hands with old friends April 6th, 2013


Written by Banu Raghuraman and Jason Shim

“Make new friends, but keep the old; those are silver, these are gold,” said Joseph Parry, a Welsh composer. With networking and connections being more important than ever, we reach out to experts in non-profit and alumni relations to find out how organizations are keeping in touch with their alumni in an efficient and productive way.

Here is a summary of our panel:

Michelle Le

Professor Armstrong,
Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative @ Rotman School of Management,
Toronto, Canada

Chad Wilcox
Director of Network Relations @ Institute for Humane Studies (IHS),
Arlington, Virginia

Michelle Le
Vice-President, International and Alumni Programs @ Fund for American Studies,
Washington, DC

For the purpose of this article, the term “alumni” does not just refer to former students, but is broadened to include all people who have worked with Endeavour, such as clients, volunteers, and former board members.

How can non-profits keep in touch with their alumni? And how can a young organization like Endeavour continue to work with their alumni?

Professor Armstrong: In theory, it sounds like a good idea for NFPs to keep in touch with their alumni; however, they should have a strong reason to do so.The organization has to be very clear about why they want to keep in touch(such as prospective donors, talent donors, networking, etc.)and they should identify what’s in it for the alumni(such as association with a prestigious institution, etc.) as well. A namesake relationship will not work – without a reason, the relationship will be meaningless – most of the time people will not know what is expected of them and it will be extremely high maintenance, especially for a non-profit.

However, after defining the purpose of the relationship, they can keep in touch with techniques like get together events, newsletters, etc. The organizations could link with key alumni members and ask them to suggest activities that are mutually beneficial.

Chad : Offer something of value. People are busy and the fact that they’re alumni means they’ve moved onto something else. What reason do you have for them to invest their time, energy, and resources? Universities are particularly successful at this, as immediately after graduation, they take steps to help alumni see the value in giving back.

Michelle : One thing we’ve been working on is talking to students in our programs about what the alumni network means and how we can help them. We have some great resources for people who are looking for work or opportunities for continuing education. It’s really important to build that alumni connection early.

Can you tell me more about TFAS’s experience with building an alumni program?

Michelle: Though TFAS had archives going back to the 70s, we hired our first alumni coordinator about 15 years ago. Today we have over 13,000 alumni and we are adding between 500 to 750 a year. It was really helpful to identify alumni programs as an organizational goal and not just the responsibility of a single person. Alumni affect everything from fundraising to recruitment and it goes across the boundaries of an organization. It’s helpful to have people from every department involved. Our international programs in particular rely heavily on alumni for recruitment. It is a more genuine interaction to hear from people who have been through the programs and it helps to save money on recruitment.

It has been helpful to analyze opportunities to provide alumni with programs that may not be otherwise offered through their colleges and universities. Our Freedom Scholars program offers a great continuing education program. We also provide a newsletter each month with articles and profiles of TFAS alumni.

With TFAS, students have the opportunity to attend programs and seminars, as well as taking part in unique internships and opportunities to be matched with mentors. We also have a program that helps students run their own grant funding organization over the summer so they can learn how to be effective grant givers.

How has social media influenced the alumni scene?

Michelle: We use LinkedIn a lot. It’s a great way to stay in touch with the alumni of our programs. Social media is also useful because even if people aren’t using email as much, they’re still checking Facebook and Twitter. Our communications team does a great job of taking care of our social media; many alumni have stayed in touch over the years across all the different networks.

First and foremost, it’s about keeping connected and understanding that there are many different ways to do that.

Are there any drawbacks to using social media? For example, there may be many people who “Like” an event on Facebook but might not actually show up.

Professor Armstrong: I don’t think clicking on “Like” means much anymore – not much inference can be drawn from it in this case. The whole idea of getting a commitment from people is absent. We overuse social media and we are inundated with it. We definitely need to do some market research on who these alumni are and what they want, then find out how it aligns with what we want and need. Once that is established, we can have a channeled interaction, or else we will be pulled in different directions.

How important is it for an organization like Endeavour to keep in touch with their alumni?

Chad: It depends. Some organizations don’t need to keep in touch with their alumni. However, people who have had experience with Endeavour are likely to be your biggest evangelizers. They can help you reach new people who may be a great fit for your programs, and can be great spokespeople for your organization. In an organization like the IHS, we hope to continue to be a part of someone’s learning experience and be a lifelong partner and resource. For us, it’s another extension of our mission.

What does the future look like for alumni relations? Are there any major changes coming in the future?

Chad: For the industry in general, and certainly at the IHS, enhancing data capabilities will make a difference as well as social media. Many alumni use email, but it is important to be paying attention to the social media space. As we are improving our data capabilities and record keeping, it will also help us offer relevant opportunities so that we can provide value to our alumni and stay connected.

Michelle: Technology and social media are changing things significantly. LinkedIn groups are being used more and we foresee it getting more active. Sometimes we have alumni who are looking to hire someone for a specific role in their organization and TFAS provides a great resource for them. These alumni know our organization and the quality of the students that go through our programs, so I think we’ll see more of that. There is a lot of local networking and I think that this will continue growing across the country and around the world. There’s only so much we can do from the headquarters.

For our international programs, our alumni have set up almost everything. We rely heavily on these local alumni around the world to help and they have been very active. About 50% of participants in our international programs are referred from previous participants.

Summary Table of 5 Key Actions to Success!
  • Alumni are your biggest evangelizers.
  • An organization should be very clear about why they want to keep in touch with their alumni and identify a clear value proposition for alumni.
  • Hearing from alumni who have experienced the organization first hard serves as a more genuine testimonial, which bodes well for positioning the organization favourably and can positively impact recruitment.
  • Build the alumni connection early- waiting several years after alumni move on from your organization may be too late.
  • Technology and social media are changing the types of interactions with alumni significantly.

Good Luck to all the organizations building their Alumni Strategies. We would love to hear from you what tips and tricks you have for successful Alumni campaigns?

Interviewee(s) profile

Dr. Ann Armstrong was an instructor at the Rotman School of Management for the past 15 years. She was the Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative responsible for increasing the School’s involvement in the non-profit and social enterprise sectors through curriculum design, research and community engagement. Click here for more information on Professor Armstrong’s profile.

The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) is an organization that assists students who support liberty with scholarships, grants, internship programs, and free summer seminars. Chad Wilcox, who serves as the Director of Network Relations for the IHS. In this role, Chad oversees efforts to connect people with knowledge and opportunities and cultivates an active alumni community.

Michelle Le serves as Vice-President, International and Alumni Programs for the Fund for American Studies (TFAS). TFAS offers programs for college and university students from around the world who are on paths towards leadership in public policy, journalism, international affairs, business, government and related fields. TFAS boasts a robust global alumni program, where she develops alumni programs.

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