One of the toughest jobs that a college coach and/or Athletic Director faces is finding that correct method and level of interaction when dealing with alumni. There is a myriad of reasons to have a strong alumni relations program and to actively engage them in your athletic programs. Alumni can help you recruit students, gets students placed in strong employment opportunities, encourage donations, improve retention, and help build a strong sense of community with campus and graduates.
One of the most important questions I received from parents is what is different about your university compared to your competitors. In other words, what makes you worth the price tag? You better have an answer when you get this question. That stale answer of, "It’s the people", is not going to get it done anymore. Ultimately the answer needs to be focused on the return on your investment and outcomes. And outcomes are often dependent on your alumni and their willingness to share information with the university and its students.
Alumni can help an athletic department and your student-athletes out in many ways and one of the most important is the ability to provide positive feedback to others about your organization’s brand through word-of-mouth marketing. Positive feedback about the university and your athletic programs on social media can help create excitement and enthusiasm for your brand and programs. And negative interactions and feedback can destroy your brand. When the alumni are excited about your program, they help create a positive buzz among current students and parents, high school parents and prospective students. This provides invaluable marketing and promotion across a wide spectrum of areas and can lead to an increase in the applicant pools and help drive up enrollment.
Alumni can support current students in a variety of ways. Successful athletic programs have alumni engaged with their coaches and student-athletes in several ways like mentoring, providing internships for students, and career networking and connections. Your alumni have a wealth of expertise and skills that if guided correctly can be shared with your current students. One example is alumni who offer interview critiques and resume workshops. Or an alumnus who tells of their success and how they overcame obstacles to achieve it. Others might participate in an alumni career fair. Find ways to get your students in front of your successful alumni and give them the opportunity to make connections, receive advice and mentoring, and secure internships.
Internships can be one of the most valuable experience a student has in their four years, or it can be one of the worst. My own son went to New York for a fall semester internship with a prestigious Off-Broadway theatre in marketing. Brad’s experience was like others I worked with over my time as an athletic director. His immediate supervisor at the Theatre was non-supportive. She acted as though she wanted no part in him. Two weeks into the internship, we learned the reason why, as the theatre outsourced all their marketing to another organization. He was left in a semester long internship in marketing with no marketing to do, with a boss who didn’t want to take the time to mentor or teach him and was at a loss for how to proceed.
His school’s internship program provided no immediate help in finding another internship. I contacted an alum in the area and asked if he would meet with Brad and give him some advice on finding another opportunity in the area for the fall. He met with Brad, provided him some great advice then offered him an internship for the rest of the fall at his internationally known media group. Crisis adverted and another problem solved. Thanks to an alumni connection, a relationship stewarded through athletics and that alum’s willingness to work with students from our school. Brad had a great experience and had positive memories of his time in New York. Today, this alum’s company has now provided several successful internships for students from Brad’s university. What could have been a disaster was adverted thanks to the kindness and passion of an alumnus.
Happy undergraduates become engaged graduates. Engaged graduates become engaged donors. Engaged donors provide life changing experiences for your students. Financial donations to a college or university can offer support for scholarships, program enhancement and quality of experience improvements for the student. Find the passion that drives the alum and engage them in ways to support or enhance that passion. It is important to understand that your passion is not always the alumni’s passion. Never ask a donor to support something they are not passionate about.
The alumni network of today is not like that of twenty, thirty or fifty years ago. You need to be innovative and try to engage your alumni in different ways based on the alumni’s interests, talent, and age. Not every graduate wants to be contacted in the same manner, have the same interest, and need the same type of stewardship. Invest In finding the best way to interact with alumni using many diverse methods. New organizations like Grad Leaders can provide your student-athletes an opportunity to connect with your alumni network to provide real life benefit for your student-athletes. Grad Leaders is an example of how schools can invest in creative ways to connect current students to alumni and build lifelong networks. They are one of several companies that can bring your students and alumni closer.
Coaches must be willing to reach out to their alumni. Many unfortunately are afraid of this contact. As athletic administrators, help your coaches understand the importance of having engaged and connected alumni. I heard coaches say my alumni keep sending me kids as recommendations for the program that can’t play here. If I recruit them and they can’t play, it is my fault. If I don’t recruit them, I am also at fault. Work with your coaches to establish the right ways and correct messages to communicate with alumni.
The first way to connect is by sending email updates to all alumni about your program and the goals for the upcoming season. Alumni like to feel involved and there is no better way to be involved than to hear from the head coach directly. You need them to help your students graduate and find successful career paths after graduation.
Second, what are the needs for the program? Where can they help if they desire? Simple comments inserted into your emails like “we want to replace our ten-year-old uniforms this season. Contact us if you would like to help” can generate great feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for your alumni to help. Help them decide the best way to help based on their passion and interest.
Thirdly, regarding recruits, let your alumni know you need their help. But not with average players. You need help with impact players. We all can recruit all the average players we want. Explain an impact player is a potential all-league, all-American, player of the year type of player. That is who they should be looking for and sending their information to you. Also explain that not every player is a good fit for your program. Explain the type of kids you want, and feel would be successful in your program. What are your academic requirements, size, skills etc. Don’t leave it to the alumni to determine your desired traits in a player.
The value of a degree and participation in your athletic program is far greater than the sum of its parts. I would suggest it is very important that you look at your alumni first as a talent pool capable of helping improve the employability of your students and a distant second as a money pool. Encourage your alumni to become engaged as professionals and offer their real-world insights from their perspective and to engage their companies of employment with the university. It is important that you engage your recent graduates as often as you do your more established older graduates. Recent graduates have a much more relevant perspective on how to start a career path and the perils and challenges in the current job markets. They also understand the changing nature of life on a college campus. Especially during times of Covid.
And finally, find a way to give back to your alumni who are giving to you. Recognition is very important and opportunities for specialized programming can go a long way in creating strong connections. Getting all your alumni engaged and energized in your programs and supporting your goals and vision can be truly inspiring and rewarding. Start stewarding your alumni today.