Are we expecting too little from the university-alumni relationship?

What do you think of when you hear the word alumni? Does fundraising come to mind? Because that’s a short-sighted view for both universities and alumni

When I engage in small talk it invariably touches on the alumni topic. As a researcher that has studied the university-alumni relationship for over a decade, I love to ask about people’s personal experiences of alumni networks. There are two common refrains that emerge: ‘the university only contacts me when they want to ask for money’ is one. The other response is ‘I haven’t really given my alumni status or my university much thought since graduation.’

This article isn’t an oscillation between this cynicism and apathy on alumni connection. I believe this reveals something greater about the university-alumni relationship: the expectations are low. As alumni, we expect little from our alma mater after graduation and indeed the university has a myopic view of the value of alumni to the institution too. I wrote the book, ‘The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment’ to address this gap. I find the blasé nature of the alumni-university relationship as a very curious one, with two key points of irony.

First, the pre-university investment remains intense: careful selection of schools, tutoring and studying hours to secure a spot on a desired course. Then there’s the incredible financial investment in university: loans and savings poured into degree success. Graduation seems to be the zenith of accomplishment, parchment in hand, closing out the university chapter of life. I am surprised that this is enough for those that have such undertaken huge personal sacrifice and significant investment to achieve this educational qualification.

The second irony is the extent to which universities are focused on the student lifecycle, starting with the marketing promises to prospective students through to improving student retention to supporting ‘student success.’ Once the student rite of passage to graduation the journey is complete, the university expels a giant sigh of relief. I wonder: how can alumni support students throughout this university journey to contribute to these touchpoints of success? And, more poignantly, why wouldn’t the university want to continue to engage alumni, with their industry and life experiences, to enhance the university community?

Universities need to instil an ‘Alum from Day One’ mindset from the moment students start university

Despite these ironies, there are some genuine efforts to engage and re-engage alumni in their university. These are the alumni involved in career-facing job shadowing or work placement programmes, alumni engaging as mentors or as guest speakers in the classroom. How can we ensure alumni can see these philanthropic options of giving their time, talent and even their ties to their industry network as a default, instead of only seeing the giving of their treasure? Moreover, how can alumni view the benefit of giving back to hone their leadership skills and sharpen the altruistic civic engagement parts of themselves?

I believe this is achieved through a recalibration of the expectations of the university-alumni relationship on both sides. This article appearing at the beginning of the academic year is fitting: universities need to instil an ‘Alum from Day One’ mindset from the moment students start university. At the same time, university leadership need to infuse the valuable experience of alumni across the entire university community. Alumni should be on the minds and in the strategies of all university leadership and administrators as the solution to so many of university needs: from student recruitment, diversity, equity, and inclusion responses to employability. Alumni is not a ‘nice to have’ it’s a need to have for all universities.

 In my book, I describe all alumni as potential philanthropists. Sure, there are excellent examples of synergies and social innovation with philanthropic financial giving, such as Professor Pamela Gillies recent account at Glasgow Caledonian University. However, not all alumni will be in a financial position or have the inclination to give a major donation to their alma mater. Some may opt to give modest donations to show their support. Let’s not discount the mutual beneficial opportunities in involving alumni as volunteers, ambassadors, and mentors. Alumni are also doing incredible work to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals and by sharing their experiences with the university community they can build synergies and inspire others to do the same.

Alumni should be on the radar of every academic, administrator, leader, researcher and student as a solution to the university’s problems

When I attended my own alumni reunion a few years ago, I was struck at the accomplished, eager alumni I met mingling over canapés. There was such an overwhelming appetite to want to give back to their university, offer their business acumen, their knowledge base to current students, to the curriculum and even to research or industry-facing projects at the university. Their challenge: they didn’t know where to start, who to contact to be able to give back.

To universities: I implore you to consider a university-wide alumni strategy that involves all aspects of philanthropy, creating active alumni citizens from the moment they start classes or step onto campus. Ensure alumni can clearly find the ways they can offer their service to the university community. Alumni should be on the radar of every academic, administrator, leader, researcher and student as a solution to the university’s problems (and not just financial ones).

To alumni: I encourage you to seek out the value in your alumni network after graduation. Graduation is only the beginning of your university journey. To reap a lifelong benefit from your university investment requires your curiosity to find lifelong learning opportunities and the broader alumni network available to you as you grow your career. There is also the creditability you generate when you give back to your university too, not to mention the satisfaction of enhancing the educational experiences for the next generation. Stay active and keep the university and your alumni network on your radar.

Let’s raise our expectations. Let’s expect more from the broadest group of alumni possible, getting them involved meaningfully in the university community. Let’s expect more from our university after graduation too, to ensure that our alumni can find ways to achieve the career and the life they want through university and alumni networks. This is the incredible power of alumni potential.


Maria L Gallo is an alumni strategist and scholar. She is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Social Innovation at the Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin and is the author of the book The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment to be published by Policy Press on 30 September. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @alumniway 

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