Engaging Alumni in Online Communities

Posted on 06/01/2020

Just about everyone who works in advancement has had to adjust their programs and strategies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alumni engagement teams have been no exception. In the face of uncertainty, some programs have hit the pause button and are waiting to see how things play out. In fact, nearly 20 percent of advancement professionals report that their institutions have either cancelled or postponed all of their alumni events and activities for the foreseeable future. 

But most advancement programs—75 percent according to a recent AGN poll—are moving forward with one big change: any alumni events and activities that they are producing, they are holding online. 

Digital engagement is nothing new for school advancement shops, who have long relied on email, social media, and webinars to connect with graduates. But producing online activities and events in mass is forcing teams to step outside their comfort zones. While learning curves always bring some pains, they can also offer opportunities to experiment with new programming and creatively reach audiences.

When the pandemic forced the alumni and donor relations team at University of Massachusetts Lowell to switch gears overnight, they did view it as an opportunity. They quickly developed a central website where graduates could find activities and events to keep themselves and their families occupied and enriched during quarantine. The site also provided access to faculty and other experts who could share information and address concerns. In order to reflect the sense of community, the team affectionately named this important online resource the “UMass Virtual Village.”

The Village includes a number of different types of content including webinars, podcasts, and articles, and covers a variety of topics ranging from kids programming to career development. It also takes advantage of third-party content such as virtual tours of National Parks and Broadway HD, where alumni can enjoy a free temporary subscription to watch productions at home.

It takes a village to make a village, and creating this resource was certainly a collaborative effort. The team worked together to come up with a response that would both provide value and serve as a relationship enhancer for their alumni and friends community. Advancement communications staff helped with design and marketing. Frontline fundraisers suggested guests and experts for webinars and panel discussions. Deans and faculty served as hosts and moderators. Coaches and members of the athletics staff helped film video of campus and facilities. Alumni were also part of the building project, as they submitted videos of their own—including artistic performances and words of congratulations and encouragement to the Class of 2020. Although fundraising was not the focus of the site, many event registration forms have included an area for alumni to make a gift to the university.

While in-person events and activities may not be the focus of alumni engagement programs for the foreseeable future, many are realizing that online programs are important too. In addition to keeping active alumni connected, they offer a way to engage new alumni who may not have participated in the past, due to geographical or scheduling conflicts. Best of all, they force advancement teams to get creative and develop programs and resources that are truly valuable for their constituents.

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