How Alumni Relations should engage graduates during the COVID-19 crisis

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There’s a ton of uncertainty now, right? 

The only thing we know for sure: alumni events are canceled and your team’s engagement plan has been flipped upside down.

As you work to keep alumni connected to your institution and to each other, figure out Zoom, and plan new digital events in hours, here’s a playbook for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic — and turning challenges into opportunities.

Keep calm, digital on

Everything’s digital now. Family gatherings, church services, donor visits, and now alumni events. 

The good news is that anything is possible. A 100,000-person dance party? Yup. A virtual marching band? Done it. Re-writing the lyrics to “I Think We’re Alone Now?” Brent’s all over that

So how do we figure out what to do with a completely blank slate? 

First, do a content inventory. Figure out what you have already that you can re-use, re-post, and re-purpose. Create a story bank and host it in one shared location — an internal wiki or a simple Google doc — for everyone on the team. 

Then look at what your institution is already doing in the digital realm. Yale opened up its most-popular class to all alumni. Oklahoma State created a resource hub of events, information, and campus news for grads. Salisbury School is celebrating alumni who work as first responders. Tap into that low-hanging fruit and share with your alumni.

Facebook continues to be the major source of news and engagement for alums. As your institution posts about the good things it’s doing to support students, donate supplies, and pour resources into its medical center, alumni are reacting, asking questions and sharing the news.  Use EverTrue to track that engagement, respond to comments, and organize lists of alumni who have digitally raised their hands and shown interest in student support for future events and fundraising opportunities.

Add value with every interaction

As you think about creating new digital events, keep alumni needs and interests at the forefront of planning.

Don’t get us wrong. The virtual 5k’s and Zoom happy hours are awesome — and add value by being fun and welcome distractions — but the longer this crisis continues, the more alumni will need to rely on their institution and the graduate network for problem-solving.

So when you create a digital event, make sure it’s about “alumni and _____” as Lynne Wester, the donor relations guru herself, said on a recent webinar. Every event and communication should be aimed and people who are alumni and ______. Fill in the blank with “trying to homeschool for the first time,” “worried about their 401k or retirement,” “thinking about preparing a will,” “looking to change careers,” “interested in supporting low-income students,” “business leaders who are hiring.”

Wherever possible, try to meet alumni needs with every communication and new program. Interest- and engagement-driven segmentation is critical to make these events and messages feel tailored and personal when inboxes are overflowing.

For example, Virginia Commonwealth University is running “Adulting 101” with virtual classes for recent grads on topics like money management, which keep its young alumni connected and adding real value to their lives. Great idea, right? Here are a few more.

Here’s how you can use EverTrue to identify alumni interests, connect with grads engaging on Facebook, update career information, and more.

Be a resource as the job market shakes out

We’ve seen record unemployment numbers in the last two weeks with 10 million Americans filing for unemployment. Hopefully, once we beat the coronavirus, we’ll see the economy and the job market spring back. But whether it’s a quick recovery or a slow one, graduates (and the class of 2020) will need to tap into their alumni networks.

Make sure you have access to up-to-date career information. In EverTrue, that means using TrueView insights to find alums working in different fields and asking them to become career mentors or post job openings. Or it’s tracking as graduates change jobs and move around the country, then reaching out to offer help if they’ve lost a job or are new to a city.

Invest time in recruiting new career mentors for your alumni networking platform (the ones who are most engaged on social media are easy ones to ask), reach out to alumni working in hard-hit industries like airlines, retail, and hotels with webinar invites or to update their directory profiles. Keep building those alumni LinkedIn groups and encourage people to post job openings as they emerge.

Keep your volunteers close

“We’re having our top volunteers pitch in with videos for graduating seniors,” said Parks Smith, Director of Strategic Volunteer Operations at VCU. “They’re the color-bleeders. They’ll walk over glass for VCU. We’re keeping them in the loop on things — every update staff receives goes out to them. And we’re having a lot of one-on-one conversations.”

Your volunteers’ lives are also topsy turvy. Now is the time to keep them in the loop. Share “insider” news from campus, invite them to Q&A’s with leadership, drop them a video and say thanks for being a leader, or connect them with current students.

Look ahead to FY21

This is an opportunity to plan ahead for big projects after shelter-in-place restrictions ease up. Brainstorm ways now to build out a larger social ambassador program, recruit more regional volunteers, or design a new alumni newsletter.

Most important of all, we have to figure out how this shift to all-digital engagement will change the future of alumni relations. Many institutions have been thrown into the deep end of video conferencing, social media, and live broadcasts (while some were already there, swimming strong). 

There’s tremendous value in offering events that aren’t geo-specific and are open to all. As the world returns to normal, take stock of what’s working now. How can your team keep that momentum going? How will your programming look different in FY21 and beyond?

Make space in your calendar now to brainstorm as a team, share ideas, and double-down on your digital investment.

Here’s EverTrue’s take on the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact on advancement: We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to learn from each other and share best practices for remote fundraising, working from home, and handling uncertainty. Bookmark this page and subscribe for ongoing updates.

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