Successful Alumni Networks: From the Round Table to the Reunion

ROIersby No’a Gorlin

At its core, the ROI Community is an alumni network. Whereas some programs engage their participants for weeks, months or years as “members” in an initial shared experience before passing them on to alumni databases, at ROI we engage our program participants in just five short days of group networking and training in Jerusalem; then, we send them out from this intensive “bubble” to resume and enhance their work in the world.

The crucial difference in our approach, however, is in the idea of “letting go.” Truth be told, at ROI, we never do let go. Our signature five-day Summit in Israel is just the gateway to the ROI Community. Membership in ROI begins in Jerusalem but lasts a lifetime. The lion’s share of ROI’s work, our many professional development, personal empowerment and networking offerings, occur only after the participants’ initial Summit experience.

Our past Summit participants are called ROI Community members, or ROIers for short, a noteworthy nuance that constantly reminds us and them that our relationship is dynamic and ongoing. To us, they are young leaders worth empowering, inspiring, connecting and developing not as an afterthought, but as the main event. Ultimately, we spend 360 days a year running and engaging with an extensive, interested and vibrant network of almost 1,000 ROI Community members, who all became members by virtue of being alumni of our Summit.

How did we build this growing, diverse and active global alumni community over the past eight years? I will be giving a webinar on this precise topic – together with Or Mars, Director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program – in the last of the #netTALKS series from the Schusterman Philanthropic Network and the Jim Joseph Foundation, so I do not want to ruin it here with any spoilers.

I will, however, share with you five key tips on creating and maintaining a thriving alumni association for any organization. For the more thorough discussion, which will examine ROI as a case study in alumni networks, I encourage you to sign up for the April 9 #netTALKS here.

1. The Prep-Work. As with any successful program, the first step in establishing a strong alumni association is thorough planning. Start off by setting clear goals that align with the vision and mission of your parent organization, as well as with the values you know ring true to your alumni as they continue their own personal and professional journeys. If you do not know your alumni’s current goals, run focus groups to gain a feel for their needs and wants at this stage of their lives.
At the same time, ensure that there really is broad enthusiasm and willingness among your alumni to get involved with your organization’s post-programming. While the Field of Dreams approach – “If you build it, they will come” – once sufficed when it came to alumni events, today it is no longer enough. Organizations must not only plan the post-programs, but market them well to ensure significant alumni participation. Why should your alumni feel compelled to attend? What is exciting and relevant about this particular event? Generating interest and hype is key.

2. The Recon. You can only create successful communication with your alumni if their correct contact information is stored in your database. This is easier said than done, particularly when dealing with a younger alumni cohort, in which frequent changes in geographic location are extremely common. One great way to obtain good results from your contact-reconnaissance work is to offer your alumni incentives to update their details. Also take the opportunity to clarify to them how they stand to gain from this new initiative that is prompting you to re-request their information.

It is vital at this stage, too, to remember that the preferred modes of communication among young people are constantly changing. Where snail mail once reigned, email quickly took over, only to be ousted by social media as millennials’ principal method of correspondence. Therefore, ask for your alumni’s Facebook page URLs, their Twitter handles and their Instagram names, in addition to their email and postal addresses. At ROI, we call this meeting our people where they are, and it is a crucial feature of our successful communications with our Community.

The final phase of Recon is tracking – be it in a simple Excel sheet or sophisticated CRM software. At ROI, we take note of marriages, births and new jobs, to name a few key milestones that we may discover through direct interactions or, alternatively, through Facebook browsing. As simple as it sounds, a similar tracking technique can do wonders to help keep your alumni communications fluid and relevant, and ultimately increase the effectiveness of your subsequent follow-up activities with your community.

3. The Gathering of the Knights to the Round Table. Once you have established the main purpose and audience of your alumni association, it is time to hold an initial meeting for a core group of “interested alumni.” Together, set the association’s objectives and agenda, such as further goals, communications, activities, fundraising, offerings and by-laws.

Identify the short- and long-term needs of both the alumni association itself and its members. At the end of the day, there should be a feeling of mutual gain for both parties, and for the parent organization of which they are a part.

4. The Launch Party. Remember: you do not get a second chance to make a first impression. Your alumni association’s launch event should be something with a broad appeal to attract as many alumni as possible. Presence of organization “celebrities” at the event can strengthen the link and the perceived support between the organization and the alumni association, not to mention increase alumni attendance. At ROI, we know that Lynn Schusterman is a major attraction when we plan events. In addition, certain magnetic personalities from within the Community itself tend to draw participants. If you recognize similar key individuals in your own alumni cohort and staff, confirm in advance that they will be able to attend – and perhaps help promote – your launch event. This will help set you on the road to success from the beginning.

5. The Follow-Through. The follow-through is the last step in the alumni association startup process, but in fact it is only the beginning. A fabulous launch event can ignite sparks of interest in your budding alumni association, but if you do not keep in constant contact with alumni thereafter, you will fail to turn those sparks into true and successful engagement. Be present where your alumni are present, both in person and in the online world; send periodic newsletters with information that is relevant to their expressed goals and interests; maintain a vibrant website and social media channels that disseminate information, invite response and help you keep up-to-date on what is happening in your alumni’s lives. At ROI, our social media and tracking tools help us stay in the loop when it comes to significant achievements and special occasions, to which we respond enthusiastically and sincerely with mazal tovs, wedding presents and relevant professional opportunities. In so doing, we demonstrate constantly to our members that we do not merely wish to push them information; rather, we truly care about their growth and development, and wish to celebrate their accomplishments together with them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, organize reunions and other gatherings that will bring your alumni into close and meaningful contact with you and with each other. Feel free to mix it up: social meet-ups and content-driven ones both have their separate advantages, for your alumni themselves and for the effectiveness, appeal and longevity of your alumni association.

These five steps are the beginning of a process that can lead to a blossoming, interested and engaged alumni association for any organization. From the beginning stages of ensuring that your association speaks to the needs of your people, to the final (ongoing) step of keeping in constant, dynamic and relevant contact with them, you will create at the outset an atmosphere of caring and community surrounding your alumni relations.

That is what we have strived to build at ROI. While we are a network of close to 1,000 individuals spread out across the globe, we feel like a family. On countless occasions, I have found myself far from home, only to chance upon the familiar face of an ROIer who has approached me to say hello or to lend a hand. From Chicago, standing on a street corner with an impossibly heavy suitcase, and my instant relief at seeing Yoni Sarason swooping in to help me carry the weight; to vacationing in Vancouver with my husband and four children, and discovering that Yona Shem-Tov happened to have chosen the same holiday spot these surprise reunions vary from lifesaving to simply joyful. Always, they reinforce in me the conviction that our work at ROI is bearing fruit in the real world, resulting in a close-knit alumni community of true personal and professional reciprocity.

Keen to hear more? For an in-depth look at the ROI Community as a case study in alumni networks, join us for the final #netTALKS webinar on alumni engagement, April 9, 2014 at 2:00pm EST.

No’a Gorlin is the Associate Executive Director of ROI Community. ROI is part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network.