The winds of political and economic change are creating stormy weather for higher education institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Brexit and the election of Trump have exposed deep divisions within our societies: our higher education institutions are seen to be part of the ‘privileged establishment’ for which many in our society are expressing their discontent. In both cases, university staff and graduates were predominantly on the losing side of the vote, yet in the face of this divide, our universities must play their part in helping to bring communities together and tackling disadvantage.
In times of such powerful and disruptive change, the relationship an institution has with its alumni is more important than ever. In fact, it is time for turbo-charged alumni relations. Institutions must develop deep and meaningful engagement with their alumni, honorary graduates, and key stakeholders if we are to unite our divided communities and secure the future of our valued institutions.
Let’s look at the issue of our divided communities first. How can alumni relations help? You can create an alumni community that:
• Volunteers within their local community, alongside your students, with your support (and in your name)
• Encourages disadvantaged youth to consider going to university
• Helps recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Supports research which tackles issues of disadvantage
• Offers students (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) internships and work placements (particularly in community organisations, charities, and NGOs)
• Is honoured for the work they do in the community by your institution – thus setting powerful examples for your students and graduates
• Is joined by honorary graduates from your community – those who play their part in healing division and bringing about change, honoured in front of your graduating class (inspiring them to go and follow that example)
• Is celebrated for the impact they have through your PR and communications
Imagine the impact of such a community!
Secondly, let’s consider the future health of our institutions. We are facing a changing landscape for research funding. In the UK, our European research funding (and the resulting collaboration with European universities) looks likely to cease with no long-term guarantees as to how this funding will be replaced. In the USA, the Republicans have made no clear commitments to research funding.
Alongside this, a top concern of voters was immigration in both countries. This presents real risk to the recruitment and retention of international staff and students. Imagine how your institution would change if you lost 10, 20, 30% of your international staff and students. What would the financial implications be? What would happen to your reputation? To your student experience?
So, how can alumni relations help? By becoming active advocates:
• Ensure your alumni are briefed on how political and legislative changes affect your work. Provide them with messaging. Invite them to lobby on your behalf and use their networks to help you reach those you need to talk to.
• Take your institution to Parliament with events at the House of Commons or House of Lords (in the UK) or to Congress with events at the Senate or House of Representatives (in the US). Ask your alumni MPs and Peers (in the UK) and Senators and Representatives (in the US) to host networking events on topics of concern.
• Reach your wider alumni community through your e-comms and your magazine – use these to highlight issues of concern. Universities should understand their alumni – especially preferences on communication, events, and other ways to connect.
• Consider the use of petitions and other social media means to deliver your messages. Recruit social media alumni volunteers to assist you to get out your messages.
All this uncertainty has made one thing certain: the leadership of our nations will need expert insight and advice, strong governance, and the ability to access those in influential positions. Through alumni communities, we can find the depth and breadth of expertise they will need. We can offer them pathfinders, influencers, and policy makers.
• Research your alumni in influential positions; identify those who can help in highly strategic ways.
• Build up a list of strategic volunteering opportunities – advisory boards, governing bodies, leadership mentors.
• Actively recruit the most senior, most influential (and affluent) alumni you can to fill these volunteering opportunities.
• Don’t stop at your alumni. Look beyond into the wider community and identify those who might become your champions.
• Consider your honorary grad nominations process. Who might you honour who could help you address the challenges you face and who has natural synergy with your areas of research?
Imagine the power of such a cadre of experts!
Investment in alumni relations is more timely and more important than ever before. It really can no longer be ‘just about fundraising.’ Alumni can play a vital role in uniting divided communities and helping institutions flourish in these challenging times.
– Susie Hills, Managing Director