Want to Start an Award-Winning Donor Engagement Program in 2020? Check Out Our Guide (Part 2 of 2)

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In an effort to share innovative ways other institutions are engaging donors and alumni, we interviewed five schools with award-winning donor engagement programs. This is Part 2 in the series.

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

4. Alma Ambassador Program

What is it? According to Alma College’s website: “The Alma College Ambassador Program® is a comprehensive effort to organize, support, and promote all types of volunteerism – redefining the culture of engagement and philanthropy at Alma College. This initiative harnesses the strength and power of the Alma family and helps us make good on our promise to advance Scots and build futures.  It is distinctive because members can completely customize their involvement.”

Why do we love it? We love how customizable, relationship-based, and far-reaching this volunteer initiative is. Signing up is simple and centralized. What an alumni or supporter does as an Alma Ambassador is based on their interests and availability; they can be involved as much or as little as they’d like. Activities include advocating for the school on social media, doing virtual resumé reviews for students, or taking part in an admissions dinner series around Michigan where alumni talk with families and prospective students about their college experiences.

Screenshot from the Alma Ambassadors website. 

How can you replicate it? William outlined a few key tips: 

➜“This program can be a partnership between advancement, admissions, and career services. You’ll need dedicated staff time to making those connections and putting in the groundwork. 

➜Think about the communication cycle; when are the touch points with ambassadors? Have this planned ahead of time. 

➜Talk with the faculty about the program and how they can be an ambassador as an employee. 

➜Get the alumni board members involved. Set a goal for them: how many ambassadors can they return? 

➜Invite others to spread the word. I recommend taking a grassroots approach (use word of mouth, social media, and electronic communication).”

Finally, William generously offered to speak with any other schools who want to discuss the program. Reach him at arnoldwh@alma.edu

Want to build more connections like this with other practitioners? Join our Research Consortium. Membership is free.

How did this program start? William Arnold credits Matthew vandenBerg (current Vice President for Advancement and External Relations) and Amanda Slenski (current Vice President for Admissions) with starting the program, which had three primary goals: 

➜Recruit new students

➜Generate career engagement (job referrals, career guidance, etc.)

➜Engage the campus and students generally in advancement

Alma College students. 

Who is it for? This program is for anyone who wants to support Alma College through admissions, student engagement activities, communication efforts, careers and internships, or philanthropy. 

How do they do it? “Collaboration across department is essential,” William explained.

“Not just alumni relations and advancement, but career services, admissions, athletics. Multiple departments collaborate on these opportunities for students, alumni, parents, and family members to be involved. This is a comprehensive way of thinking about engagement. We have personal interactions across departments and understand that everyone is benefitting. We’re working against the silo mentality.

Check out our guide on engaging regional alumni leaders.

Why is it so successful? William thinks the program is successful for two main reasons: 

➜“It’s flexible. Rather than telling people what [our department] needs them to do, the people tell us what they’re available to do.

We tried to make the program very personal, especially the admissions referral process. If alumni refer a prospective student, that alumni gets updates on the student’s steps in the process. For example, we let the alum know if the student applied. The student also receives a scholarship in the referrer’s name, $6,000 across all four years. It’s exciting for alumni to feel like they’re helping pick the next generation of who gets to have this experience. Plus, this is an additional supportive relationship in place for the student, someone who can check in them throughout their time here, especially during the first semester.” 

According to the Alma website, “In 2018, Ambassadors referred 1,318 students, and referred students ultimately comprised 56 percent of Alma’s entering class in that year.”

Any challenges? William didn’t share any challenges with the Alma Ambassadors program. It seems that campus-wide buy-in and communication are crucial to the success of the program. 

5. Women’s Leadership Symposium

What is it? The first Women’s Leadership Symposium, sponsored by the Ohio State University and Ohio University alumni associations, was a daylong exchange of ideas surrounding the unique strengths and challenges of being a woman. More than 450 women attended the event which included twenty sessions, a keynote address from former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, and a Q&A. 

Why do we love it? We love this program because in our current divided political climate and the wake of the #MeToo movement, such a program is responsive, meaningful, and connection-centered.

As Lauren Luffy said, “In this work, have to be willing to take risks and show our values.”

Photo provided by OSU

How can you replicate it? Lauren provided a list of tips:

➜“Earlier marketing always helps and marketing to specific populations and through the right organizations. Work with community partners if possible. 

➜Think big, even if it is a small event. Put big asks out there even if you don’t know if you’ll get them; you never know where a connection might lead.

➜Collaboration with another school was key to our success.

➜Do your research on topics that people actually want to hear about and discuss.

➜Timing is tricky; be sure to create enough open time for people to connect to balance with the number of sessions. Allow time for people to personally process and think about how they could apply what they’re learning to their life. This is why we tried to create reflection questions in our followup materials.

➜Create a way to let alumni hear about the work of faculty and their research, just showcasing that can be really eye-opening.”

Want to learn more about the Women’s Leadership Symposium? Check out their microsite!

How did this program start? Lauren Luffy explained that Ohio University approached the Ohio State University because they wanted to hold this summit-like event in Columbus and collaborate. OSU had done women-focused programs before, but nothing this large and not since the early 2000s. They started the Symposium because they wanted to offer different types of programming for women, not just social, athletic, or academic. Lauren said, “We wanted to reach alumni who might not be interested in our other programming. And this was so popular, a lot of the attendees already asked when the next one will be held. We’ve decided to do it every other year and already set the date for the next one in 2020.”

Who is it for? The Symposium was open to all alumni, but mainly targeted at women alumni in the central Ohio area. Current students were also invited and offered a reduced registration price. 

Photo provided by OSU

How do they do it? Lauren is part of the Alumni Experiences team at OSU, which is all about lifelong engagement. When planning the Symposium (and other initiatives), they look at different life stages of alumni and consider what their unique needs might be in each stage. Lauren said, “The Symposium program together all generations. It was diverse in a variety of ways; we had speakers from many different disciplines, and women from all different walks of life, like corporate and nonprofit.” For the session offerings, they had a team member who did a lot of research on what topics and trends would be most relevant and pressing for women attendees. For marketing, OU and OSU each handled their own marketing efforts to their own alumni. OSU provided the venue, the Ohio Student Union.  

Lauren explained, “The leadership theme was important but general enough to draw people from different walks of life and fields. We wanted them to see a direct tie between their alma mater and how it might have helped them become a leader.” 

Photo provided by OSU

Why is it so successful? “Attention to detail is standard to OSU,” Lauren said. “We want each event to be as perfect as possible. [Before the event,] we share with attendees what they can expect of the day (where to park, what they can eat, that sort of thing). We have better results when people know what they’re getting into, and this helps different groups feel welcome.”

“We tried to create time (between sessions, at meals, etc.) for attendees to network and build relationships. We tried to create a setting where alumni can get together and share. When we’re busy, we may not be able to take the time to get to know each other’s stories and build each other up, especially in our current social climate. We wanted to make people feel recognized and supported. OSU is committed to inclusion and gender equality.” 

Any challenges? The attendees were primarily women, but Lauren said, “We’d love for more men to attend the symposium in the future and take part in the conversation.” It’s helpful to remind possible attendees that just because an event is about the issues that women (or some other group) face, doesn’t mean other supporters aren’t welcome and won’t be able to contribute to the conversation. 

We hope you found this series on how to start an award-winning donor engagement program helpful! Does your school have an amazing alumni or donor event or program that deserves recognition? We want to hear about your success stories and feature you on this blog!

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