Keep the alumni fire burning

November 15, 1996

A year ago while meeting with two senior officials of a well-established Danish university, I had occasion to discuss fundraising activities directed at corporations and individuals by universities in the United States. As an example I mentioned that at "my school" they had organised a $1 billion fund-raising campaign.

My comment was met with smiles, mild laughter, and a brief exchange between my hosts in Danish. With a polite apology they explained that in Denmark no one would refer to a university they had attended as "my school".

I will not seek to explain here the various reasons why generations of Americans have become intensely attached to their universities with resulting economic and in some instances substantial political support. But it is worth noting that significant development of similar programmes are being undertaken by some universities in Western Europe to build closer student affiliation to the institution.

Regardless of what has been true in the past, building that allegiance would lead to a brighter financial future with expanded sophisticated advocacy for those schools.

As government financial support for universities declines in more and more Western European countries, institutional leaders are seeking additional means of securing private support.

In addition to reaching out to corporations, foundations and the general philanthropic community (where it exists), these leaders have focused on a long-neglected source of potential financial and political support: alumni.

Former students are increasingly being utilised to provide career guidance to current students, thereby enhancing the quality and suitability of the instruction.

The task of contacting one's graduates, as I learned in my seven-country study tour, can be daunting. The general condition of alumni files at many Western European institutions ranges from non-existent to embryonic at best.

The initial hurdle of locating current addresses for an institution's living alumni is a formidable challenge, but not impossible. The experience garnered by some institutions on how to find and make an effective initial contact is available to all who are willing to undertake this endeavour. It is my contention that at the end of the day it is worth the effort.

While institutions differ vastly in culture and atmosphere there are, I believe, universal similarities among alumni that will aid in forging an association of supportive graduates.

To make the most of these similarities, institutions in the United States follow students from graduation to the grave with a bevy of publications and solicitations.

An attractive and informative publication telling alumni about activities on campus, institutional successes, and plans for the future, tends to instil a sense of pride in one's association with the institution.

Historical pieces on buildings and old photos of teams, clubs and other recent commemorative occasions generate a warm sense of nostalgia about one's university years.

The infamous and ever-popular class notes are probably one of the most anticipated sections of any alumni magazine, As a colleague of mine once said, she checks the alumni magazine closely to make sure that her old boyfriend is not doing better than she is.

Inclusion of graduates on advisory committees to the various schools and departments have yielded extraordinary benefits in goodwill, donation of equipment, and other often unanticipated generosities.

The career services offices have also begun to attract attention from both recent and older graduates who are availing themselves of these services with increasing frequency.

Those in need of a job or further direction in a career surely feel kindly disposed, if and when successful, to the institution providing the programme.

To further encourage a feeling of connection, the establishment of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case) office in London and the Higher Education External Relations Association (Heera) provides a valuable resource of alumni ideas and programmes that are compatible with European institutions.

Numerous graduate student association outreach mechanisms have begun to take hold in England, Ireland and the Netherlands, and are likely to spread to other countries.

Affinity cards, organised alumni travel tours, and social occasions on campus to bring back club and sports team members have been utilised and have met with varying degrees of success.

Even though institutional officials and faculties may be reluctant to invest resources, time, and effort in reaching out to their graduates, there are still a multitude of activities that can be undertaken with current students to build a sense of attachment.

Any investment in providing a student-oriented, user-friendly environment that builds a foundation of attachment to the school will likely pay off in a variety of ways in the future.

We live in an era when universities require local and national political support on issues ranging from finance to governance.

The ability to call on one's alunmi, both inside and outside of government circles, with whom long-term relationships have been established and cultivated, is invaluable.

While the concept may seem somewhat Machiavellian, it is in reality no more than the ordinary outgrowth of a well-organised alumni programme and the reality of the current political atmosphere.

This may all seem far-fetched to some administrators. But based on the experience of some European institutions, the odds are that there will be adequate political and financial dividends derived from even a modest investment in alumni relations.

Building a sense of affiliation among students and graduates is likely to yield an unexpectedly large payoff by generating the feeling that this is "my school".

Sheldon Elliot Steinbachis vice president of the American Council for Education.

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