We are currently standing at a game changing moment in Alumni Relations.  Never before in the history of Alumni Relations have we seen the kind of transformation in the student and alumni body as has happened over the last 10 – 15 years.

The explosive disruption that technology has foisted on knowledge acquisition, generation and ownership; the unprecedented access to information at the fingertips of anyone with a keyboard; the seismic change in how individuals interact with each other, with organisations and with authoritative conventions are but a few of the elements which have resulted individuals who no longer display either the behavior or expectations of the alumni of 15 or more years ago. Within the next 10 years alumni communities will bear little resemblance to those of the last 100 years and will display a diversity and fragmentation guaranteed to challenge the kinds of alumni programmes that exist today.

Significant changes include:  i) an increasing number of international registrations which in turn is growing the percentage of the alumni community who do not live in the same country or even share a similar societal culture with their university; ii) the increasing interest and emphasis on on-line education which is producing students whose experience of their university is increasingly virtual thereby undercutting the customary use of a sense of place and time to connect alumni with their alma mater; iii) the ever expanding opportunities for communication and connectivity which has brought with it a language, protocols and  attitudes towards response and action that continues to mutate on an almost daily basis. The customary messages may still have value but the way in which they are packaged, distributed and responded to, is a journey into constantly evolving territory.

The changing composition of the student body, the unprecedented transformation of the way in which learning and teaching takes place, the revolution of access and interaction that touches on almost every aspect of how individuals react and act within our society are already producing alumni communities that do not respond to the traditional methods  of communication and contact.

Communicating with alumni has never had so many options.  Email, newsletters, websites, social media, postings, blogs, radio, television, mass mailings, dedicated publications, to name only a few each have their own unique visibility and sets of consequences and results.  One size does not fit all and the tension between mass communication and individually tailored exchanges continues to push and test the efficacy of Alumni Relations programmes at turning their communities into loyal and active supporters of their institutions

If universities have done their job right – and there is no reason to think that they have not – then we are producing generations of young people who have grown up in an environment that has taught participation and partnership as models of engagement.  We are graduating young people who interact both individually and collectively with their world and have the means to make their voices heard. With a few clicks and taps opinions can be expressed, photographs can be posted and causes can be supported, stories can be told and reality can be distorted.  These graduates expect to participate in or comment on the conceptualization, design and implementation of products and programmes that affect them.  They expect to contribute to the world around them and they expect to be asked to do so.

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How then do Alumni Relations programmes communicate with this wave of challenge whilst still maintaining the strong connections they already have with preceding alumni communities? In essence the answer remains much the same as it ever was.  We have to be sure that we understand what it is that alumni want and in providing same cultivate relationships that see the university as a valued partner who both provides for and extracts from their alumni communities essential services and support.

What do alumni want? Recent research reveals that the new generation of graduates have three specific issues at the top of the list.

Firstly, they expect their university to assist them in finding a job. A tertiary education qualification no longer guarantees work and universities can no longer operate as though providing education is enough. Recruitment programmes, internships, and work-study opportunities are now standard components of assistance packages that universities are expected to provide for students as they are introduced to the world of work.

Secondly, they want their university to provide the means whereby they can continue to strengthen and advance their careers. Mid-career advice, on-going learning opportunities and conversion programmes all help tie alumni to their universities and builds connection and loyalty.

Thirdly, they want their university to provide assistance in times of transition. This is not a request for a handout. Assistance can take many forms. For example, during the mortgage meltdown, some institutions ran information sessions for their alumni on refinancing, payment options, and the legal possibilities facing homeowners.

Young graduates do not see their education as pure privilege that in return demands that they “give back”. For many students in South Africa, getting into a tertiary education institution has taken hard work and sacrifice and many have had to beat extreme odds to obtain their education. They see their success as a consequence of collaboration and as a result, their graduation is the opportunity to continue a mature and collaborative relationship with their university and not the moment at which they are switched from engaged, intellectually connected participants in an academic community to “friends”.

Traditionally alumni communities have been communicated with and stewarded in a manner that has focused primarily on connection, general information sharing and reminiscence with little emphasis on developing that community to active support and service for the institution. For example, few universities in South Africa direct their alumni to giving to an Annual Fund. Even fewer have targeted cultivation programmes designed to significantly increase alumni participation in achieving the targets of the fundraising agenda.

In a previous article I stated quite baldly that Alumni Relations programmes that are not actively aligned to the Advancement goals and priorities of an institution is a cost that universities can ill afford.  Relationship building without specific targets is a lost opportunity to communicate with the alumni community. Given the increasing complexity of that community – a condition that is going to intensify in the coming years – it is essential that Alumni Relations programmes re-test that which we think we know and confront the very real possibility that within the next 10 years Alumni Relations as we know is likely to be obsolete.

This is not necessarily bad news. The opportunity window for negotiating that sea-change is still open, although perhaps not for long. Successfully building flexible and successful communication channels that encourage participation and make it easy to contribute is an essential component right now of ensuring that Alumni Relations remains relevant into the future.

Author: Gillian Mitchell: Inyathelo Associate

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