Alumni engagement is about making stronger alumni under the flag of the university. Our efforts should yield personal and professional success stories and in the process increase school spirit. We hope successful alums can equate post-college achievements back to our institutions and be compelled to give back both time and treasure over the long term. That’s the goal as I see it. There are, however, two prevailing assumptions within higher education that might ultimately hold back an institution from realizing their engagement goals.

1) Alumni engagement means convincing alumni to give back to the university because they owe their post-college success to the education they received as undergraduates.

2) Web content to stimulate alumni engagement revolves around generating and sharing news about alumni achievements because positive public relations equates to goodwill.

The first assumption was the most troubling for me. So much of what we sculpt as our alumni engagement initiatives requires operating under the assumption that alumni owe the institution something. They do not. This should not be part of the philosophical framework to an alumni engagement strategy. To put it another way, not all of your alumni bleed school colors. You must continue to earn their time and treasure by giving something. That’s how I think of alumni engagement – what can I give to our alumni to make them successful. Not, what do I need to do to get them to give back.

News as a strategic component of alumni engagement strategy falls short because we are not unbiased entities and shouldn’t function as such. News of an alumni achievement is nice, but so what?!? News misses the “so what” factor because in Alumni Affairs we have an agenda. We want our alumni to engage with us and our initiatives. We want our alumni to do something like update their information in our database or volunteer in some capacity. We need to tell a specific type of story that validates continued involvement, not just a simple news announcement. News can be a part of an alumni engagement strategy, but if all content can be categorized as news, you might be missing a more strategic opportunity.

A successful alumni engagement strategy has three overarching paradigms.

1) Continued involvement from alumni must be earned, not expected.
2) Strategy must be built around the needs of alumni, not the university.
3) The best content (while loosely veiled propaganda) always prompts an action.

At Washington and Lee University there is an incredibly loyal, world class alumni network. All the same, the staff does not take for granted alumni needs. Young alumni particularly want the university to help them provide networking opportunities to facilitate personal and professional connections.

Approach alumni engagement by promoting life long education and facilitating conversations about the work world, graduate school, and work/life balance. If alumni can equate post-college success back to the university, everybody wins. At Washington and Lee the staff works hard to provide advice-based alumni supplied content and shares personal and professional success stories that are the results of active engagement in the alumni network.

Remember we are selling something and there is competition. Not every alumnus believes their college degree opened enough doors. Many of them need convincing that attending networking events, reunions, or active participation is worth their time and energy.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.

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  • I think you hit the nail on the head with your three points. Engaging with alumni means showing them value for their engagement, not just being a conduit for fund raising. Find out what alumni want, and give it to them. What we have learned is many alumni are time crunched and want to know how they can get involved in a meaningful way, but don’t have a clue to ask.

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  • Excellent post! Crowdsourcing knowledge from your alumni and then building on top of that knowledge is what will separate the great alumni programs from the rest. How awesome would it be if I as a graduating student could ask a question about employment at company X and then get a response from an alumni that works there! I would even venture out to say that an engaged alumni and access to this alumni might be deciding factor for students. Viewing your alumni as a strategic partner for the remainder of your career is what all of this boils down to. If you are interested in finding out more on this topic of engaging your alumni through social knowledge check out They’ve essentially built the Quora/Medium software designed especially for Alumni.

  • Priyadarshini Vin

    Hi Ryan, this is a good article that I found very helpful! Currently, I am researching the future of alumni relations. Would you be able to recommend any whitepapers?