Alumna, Alum-me-not… Alumni and Belonging

by Jenni Emery in Partners   |    Last Edited: 27th June 2019

I’m useless at clubs. Here are just a few of the things I’ve failed to stick at: Majorettes. Girl Guides and Scouts. Hockey Club. Church. Book group. Ante-natal classes.

Something in me bristles at the forced camaraderie, the real-time nostalgia, the jolly but insistent requirement to conform.

That same something in me bristles on hearing the word ‘alumni’.

I first came across the word, and the whole concept, as an undergraduate at an Oxford College. There I was – hanging on by my working-class fingernails, very much longing but not-belonging, and gradually waking up to the notion that there were hundreds of people out there in the world who were proud to have been part of this college and, indeed, considered themselves to be a part of it still. These people wore the college colours with pride. They voluntarily came back to college events. They gave money. They helped each other out. They talked about the good old days. These people were called ‘alumni’ and one day, I learned, I would be a proud alumna too.

Except that I’m not. Not really. Oh, I have happy memories for sure. And lifelong friends, deep gratitude, and a little jolt of pleasure when I happen across a postcard showing a leafy quad where I used to sit and study. But because I didn’t really belong then, I don’t really belong now. I resist any expectation on the part of the college that I will continue to participate, and I quell the stirring of any impulse in me that seeks, a quarter-century later, to claim ownership or affiliation. It all feels a little arrogant, a little fake, and oddly embarassing.

And yet. I’m clearly not entirely a lost cause when it comes to this whole alumni thing. In a twenty year career, I have had long stints working with three organisations, alongside some shorter dalliances and a bit of time working for myself. If you cut me through the middle, you’d see the names of those three organisations, inscribed as if in a stick of seaside rock; their mark in me as indelible and as determinative of who I now am as the rings in a tree trunk.

One, two, three. Always my loves. I work at one, am doing some consultancy on the side for another, and I’m speaking next week on a panel for the third.

So, what gives? What’s the difference between Guides, ante-natal classes and Oxford on the one hand, and those three firms on the other?

One thing. Belonging.

In my book, Leading for Organisational Change: Building Purpose, Motivation and Belonging, I explore the central importance of belonging for current and future employees of an organisation. But as we increasingly think in terms of the boundaryless organisation, we come to understand more deeply the central and ongoing role that our alumni play in the wellbeing of our organisations – and, equally, the central and ongoing role that our organisations play in the wellbeing of our alumni.

As a result, it becomes important to think about how to build and maintain a sense of belonging amongst a whole population of people, separated in time and space, but united by their ties to an organisation – and this includes alumni.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of belonging. A mountain of research spanning almost two hundred years and looking across multiple cultures and contexts demonstrates beyond doubt that the single biggest predictor of our health, happiness and longevity is our sense of connectedness to one another. More than genetics, diet, exercise, choice of career, where we live – the single, biggest predictor of our health, happiness and longevity as individuals is not a factor which pertains to us as individuals at all – it is about community. We need to feel connected to each other. We need to feel, in other words, as though we belong.

In a work context, our sense of belonging is rooted in myriad small things – the building we turn up at every day, our walk from the station to get there, the name above the door and on our headed notepaper, the people around us who know us, and the fact that we get grumpy if Spurs lose. It’s in the traditions of the annual Christmas party through to the jargon and acronyms we use.

Any change which challenges our sense of belonging presents a threat. Our brains process social pain using the same systems they use for physical pain – to the brain there is no difference[i]. And few changes present as big a potential threat to our sense of belonging as leaving an organisation.

My book advocates focusing on three areas to engender a sense of belonging in the workplace:

  • building connectedness and relationships;
  • creating an environment in terms of physical surroundings and daily routine in which people feel safe and authentic and can thrive; and
  • building identity, for individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

These same three areas merit careful consideration in the context of alumni. How can organisations work with these three areas to maintain trust and loyalty amongst their alumni? To help them preserve their status and confidence and sense of relatedness as they transition? To keep them engaged and motivated to continue to add value, whether as advocates, ambassadors, clients, consultants, or simply part of the eco-system?

The ideal approach will of course vary according to context. But, three examples …

  1. In terms of building and maintaining connectedness and relationships, how about pro-actively connecting new recruits and current employees with alumni? There could be lots of scope to share learning – about the organisation in particular, about a new sector, or a new geographic location.
  2. In terms of creating a physical environment and routines for people, you may need to be imaginative … Do you have physical spaces that your alumni could be free to use? Can you give them online space? Can they co-create platforms with you? And/or co-create the routines and means you use to engage with them? Can they help to organise events, rather than have events ‘done to them’?
  3. In terms of establishing a sense of common identity, think about how you can give alumni information about your organisation’s priorities, challenges, achievements, that they can identify with and share as in some way their own. Identity is closely linked to brand, and positive press coverage, strong performance in league tables and industry awards, and the odd big ‘billboard’ moment can all contribute to building a sense of identity.

Underpinning all of this, are stories. Stories are one of the most potent tools to help with building connectedness and identity in particular, because they engage people at the deeper emotional level at which issues of belonging and identity operate, and build a richer and more vibrant context for people to aspire to be part of.

You’re basically building a tribe. All of us want to feel as though we’re not alone. We want to feel special – to understand our unique part in the story and to know we matter. So, find ways to remind people, through explicit words and through lived experience, of the purpose of what the organisation is doing. Tell stories and draw your alumni into those stories so that they become a part of what is going on – bonding with the storytellers, and with those new people around them who are also joining the story. Lay down shared experiences and let people bear witness to each other – ‘I was there when …’.’ Do you remember when …?’ This is ultimately what will keep alumni feeling as though they belong.

Jenni Emery is Global Leader of People and Culture at Arup, the design and engineering consultancy, and author of Leading For Organisational Change: Building Purpose, Motivation and Belonging (Wiley 2019). She blogs at www.jenemery.com and is on LinkedIn and Twitter


[i] Scarlett, Hilary, Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-Based Practical Guide to Managing Change, Kogan Page, 2016