The term “alumni relations” which used to characterize the way that schools connect with their graduates is now extended to business alumni programs and how companies engage with their former employees.
In academia and the workplace, an organization’s alumni serve as important external ambassadors for the brand. A brilliant Cornell grad who becomes U.S. President reflects well on her school, while a Google-trained engineer who creates the next billion-dollar app makes his ex-employer shine.
There is a common element of community, too. Through technology and events, both educational and business alumni programs bring together alumni to facilitate meaningful connections.
But beyond the obvious similarities, there are several key distinctions between educational and business alumni programs:
The alumni programs serve different—though in some cases parallel—purposes.
Universities have fairly consistent reasons for wanting to engage their former students. They know that proud, involved alumni will give back to the school through gifts of money, time, and expertise. Alumni are the people who fund new buildings and scholarships, who mentor students and open doors for internships/jobs, who speak as experts in classrooms, and who sometimes even interview prospective new admits. They’re a crucial part of the school’s community and its continued growth.
On the corporate side, the reasons for engaging alumni are varied. Some companies house their alumni programs in HR, aiming to leverage alumni as a talent pool for re-hires and referrals. Other organizations place the program into Communications, seeing alumni as a key constituent group to communicate news and thought leadership alongside clients, investors, and journalists. Some companies include the alumni program with Business Development, where select alumni can be courted to drive sales and deepen client relationships. I’ve even heard of alumni programs residing in Corporate Social Responsibility departments. Often there is a mix of strategic reasons that a company will engage its ex-employees; these reasons are shaped by the company’s culture and the particular needs of the business.
The alumni have different levels of emotional affinity—and thus they require different engagement strategies.
It’s common for college to be a transformative experience and for a university campus to evoke colorful memories of friendship, love, learning, and personal growth. There is often a deep emotional bond between a person and his/her alma mater. This means that schools can lean into nostalgia as a way to appeal to alumni (e.g. “Join us for a 15-year reunion and revisit your favorite spots on-campus with your group of best friends.”) The strong connection also allows schools to drive the message that alumni owe it to the next generation to “pay it forward” and give back (e.g. “Help ensure that tomorrow’s students have the same experience that you did. Consider giving us $500.”)
Corporate alumni often have positive regard for their ex-employer—sometimes they even characterize their tenure as a transformative experience or a training ground for future success—but a workplace doesn’t usually hold the same emotional resonance as a college campus. Business alumni don’t revisit spots around the office for nostalgia’s sake in the way that they might check-in on their old fraternity/sorority house or catch a sports game at their school’s stadium. And most would burst out laughing if their former employer asked them to cut a check to support the next generation of employees. For these reasons, companies need to present clear, compelling reasons for alumni to engage in their networks—typically centered on exclusive opportunities for career advancement and networking, access to knowledge and domain expertise, business partnership development, etc.
The alumni programs are organized differently.
Major universities usually have dozens of employees dedicated to engaging alumni. This arm of a school is classified as “Advancement” and it’s a complex, well-oiled machine responsible for engaging alumni and other donors to generate support for the future of the institution. When I was employed at Syracuse University, I worked alongside more than 100 alumni-focused professionals: major gift officers, stewardship coordinators, event planners, volunteer managers, donor research specialists, alumni record keepers, communicators, and the list goes on. Each person had a very specific role to play.
In contrast, alumni teams are typically more lean in the corporate world—at Nielsen, there are just two of us. What this means is that corporate alumni pros need to be strategic when it comes to deploying people resources and creative in identifying partnership opportunities with other units across the business to provide value to alumni. The selection of an alumni technology vendor is also key, as the right vendor can serve as a strategic partner and an extension of the in-house team.
Given these differences in structure, the profile for an ideal business alumni manager is different than an ideal higher ed alumni manager. On the corporate side, an entrepreneurial generalist is often best: someone equally comfortable giving a speech, digging into data, planning an event, cultivating relationships at a cocktail party, and writing copy for a newsletter.
Though there are similarities between educational and business alumni relations, fundamental aspects of these programs are different. Having worked in both spaces, I firmly believe that an open exchange of knowledge between alumni professionals will make us all better—especially amidst surges in innovation on both sides—but it’s important to remember that educational and corporate alumni programs serve distinct purposes and face a number of unique challenges.
Dan Klamm is an alumni relations leader with experience in the corporate and higher education spheres. He currently serves as Director of Alumni Relations at Nielsen, where he has built the alumni program over the last two and a half years. Previously, he spent seven years working in student affairs, marketing, and alumni relations for his alma mater, Syracuse University.