Top Takeaways from Our First Idea Lab Session: Engaging Alumni with Story

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On Thursday, September 28, 2017, ALUMinate held its first digital Idea Lab session, “Engaging Alumni with Story.” This hour long member-only session was a featured opportunity for all ALUMinate Research Consortium members. All participants received a complimentary copy of Esther Choy’s Let the Story Do the Work. Five institutions (Notre Dame University, Kansas State University, Reed College, McDaniel College, and East Carolina University) were represented at the session. Esther Choy, Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder of ALUMinate; Bob Fealy, President & Co-Founder of ALUMinate; and Caitlin Scarano, ALUMinate’s Research Consortium Director co-facilitated.

The driving questions of this session were:

  1. How does your institution define storytelling?

  2. What is your storytelling strategy?

  3. How do you implement that strategy? Who is involved in the implementation?

  4. How do you measure effectiveness?

Note: These 4 questions are the most important takeaway from the Idea Lab session, and ones we encourage you to share with your colleagues and department as you think about how you can more successfully incorporate storytelling into the work that you do.

We had a great conversation and have handpicked the best insights to share with you!

In response to Esther Choy’s question, “How would you define storytelling in higher education, especially alumni outreach?” participants said:

  • *Storytelling is a way of sharing a compelling narrative that connects alumni back to their alma mater and reminds them that they are part of the institutional family, wherever they may be.

  • *Story can be a way to ignite alumni and other supporters into action.

  • *Storytelling can help alumni realize that in order to continue the legacy of the institution, they may consider contributing financially. In addition, one successful way to thank volunteers and donors is by telling a story of how their time, talent, or treasure has impacted the community.

  • *Story can be a way to re-engage alumni you’ve lost touch with.

  • *For our institution, storytelling is a way of bringing the human element to the work that we do.

Esther Choy shared ALUMinate’s Alumni Lifecycle Chart and noted that, “The recent graduate’s memory and their experience is going to be very different from the 60 or 70 year old who graduated from the same institution. […But] there is an inherent pattern to the human experience. I think this graph is a way to help us see that.”

As follow-up to the first question, we wanted to know, “What is your storytelling strategy? How is that strategy very distinct to you and your institution? In addition, when you think of strategy, how do you choose a story? How do you deploy that story and when?”

Here are some of the ideas participants offered up:

One participant discussed the success their institution had when they asked alumni to share memories of certain iconic locations on-campus and used those memory-driven stories to strategically support university initiatives or goals.

In response to this example, Esther Choy replied, “Memory can play tricks on us, but it also helps us form identity and relationships. […] What is really great about your example is that students carry these stories with them but now, on an institutional level, they’ve been unearthed.”

Another participant explained how they have been trying to build one continuous or cumulative story in their fundraising appeals. For example, the first appeal is a story about a first-year student, the second appeal is about that same student’s experiences in her second year, and so forth. This participant pointed out that in the institution’s curriculum, all of those four years have significant milestones in them that have existed for 50 years or more, so alumni can recognize or see themselves in each of them.

A third participant shared that they are always on the lookout for powerful stories, and they let those stories shape the objectives (as opposed to the objectives shaping or choosing the story).

Finally, we discussed compelling examples of what other institutions are doing with story that we’ve found:

1) James Madison University (Caitlin’s own alma mater!) facilitates a professional development blog called “Dukes Take Five.” They approach career development through individual alumni stories. The profile piece and the individual feature play a big role in alumni storytelling.

2) University of Illinois recently put out the following call: “Help Us Tell the University of Illinois Story: The University of Illinois Alumni Association and the UI Student Life and Culture Archives are seeking donations—photos, artifacts, and audio and video recordings—for possible display at the official University of Illinois Welcome Center.” This is more tactile use of story and an example of creating a space you can go to and experience story.

3) Esther shared an example called #KelloggReunion Story Share, “an unprecedented opportunity for Kellogg alumni returning to Reunion to share their insights with the Kellogg community.” When Kellogg School of Management alumni gather for a reunion weekend, they can sign up for a 10-15 minute slot to tell their story in a green room and have it recorded on video. Their story doesn’t have to be complete or polished, they can have the conversation with facilitators. The facilitator’s voice is later edited out and what you have left is a video of alums telling their stories in this touching, authentic, and casual way, like you are sitting in a living room or a bar catching up with an old friend. This is an example of taking advantage of people who are already gathering in one place and using technology to capture their stories.


We want to thank all the institutions who participated in our first Idea Lab session. From this discussion, we continue to recognize just how important having a cohesive storytelling strategy on the institutional level really is.

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