As colleges and universities across the country graduate another class, it’s a chance to pause and evaluate how we are engaging young alumni. In this interview, Ayanna McConnell, the acting chief executive officer for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, shares success stories and strategies.
Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: In your experience, what are the key components of a successful alumni membership program? And how can colleges and universities build awareness of these offerings among young alumni?
Ayanna McConnell, acting chief executive officer for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan: Alumni membership programs are not common, as many alumni associations are a part of their university’s advancement shops or foundation. As an independent and separate 501c3 organization, we rely on membership revenue to support broader alumni engagement, through the 90+ domestic clubs, global alumni travel experiences, career and education programs, alumni student recruiting, along with other offerings. A key component to our success has been our diverse set of program offerings, which aims to engage alumni at pivotal turning points in their life. One specific example includes our alumni career team, which has seen success highlighting timely themes such as invisible labor in families, first-generation professionals, and programs to support career journeys beyond the first job after college.
Hibel: A 2020 Young Alumni Survey by Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL) found that students who reported greater satisfaction and felt more connected to their college were four times more likely to donate as alumni. That finding confirms that young alumni involvement, participation, and giving is largely influenced by student experience. How can this information inform colleges and universities’ strategies for student and young alumni engagement? What needs to change in your opinion?
McConnell: It was affirming that listening was at the top of the list from RNL’s survey — the worst thing any organization can do is create strategies based on assumptions. One way to address young alumni engagement is to always remember that students are future alumni — engage them early and often! For over a decade, the Alumni Association has hosted “Welcome Wednesdays” where on average, 1,000+ students stop by weekly for free bagels and coffee. We’ve used both polls and newsprint surveys to capture student feedback to help shape engagement efforts. It’s also important to engage where students are, not just on campus, as you also connect with their parents and families. Alumni clubs throughout the country host student send-off events to connect seniors with the UM networks in their hometowns before arriving at Michigan, and the Office of Admissions also invites alumni to engage with families at regional events. A few years ago, we launched a Student Life membership program, offering students premium swag and access to programs and services as a preview of their life membership. In 2024, we’re building on the success of student membership with a student ambassador program geared towards engaging student influencers on our three campuses — these students will also provide regular insights to our staff. We’re also partnering more with colleagues in student life and across the units to engage alumni in their programming.
Hibel: From a technological standpoint, young alumni are likely engaging with their alma maters differently than previous generations of alumni. How can colleges and universities best connect with their young alumni?
McConnell: Knowing who and where your alumni are (ahem, data) is one component of building awareness, but also having a strategic direction for your program that has the right mix of proven and new offerings is important. As an independent organization, we exist to “create and deepen belonging to the Michigan family,” so partnering with the university and leveraging our channels to highlight university impact and resources is another role we play. As an association, we’re furthering our work with data analytics, engagement score, and audience personas to ensure we are intentionally tracking how alumni engage with us. Then we use this data to inform where and how we tell our stories. For example, we are investing in increasing our video capabilities since our data shows that young alumni are watching more videos, particularly on mobile platforms.
Hibel: What success stories can you share about engaging young alumni in an impactful way? How was it different than engaging older alumni?
McConnell: We’re learning from Millennials and Gen Z that episodic, impactful project-based volunteer opportunities are more attractive than serving on councils and boards. Younger alumni are philanthropic but also mission-driven, so being transparent with how their resources are used via impact storytelling and leveraging digital platforms is key. However, we’re learning that all alumni, regardless of generation, appreciate short and snackable content they can easily consume or share. Simple messaging, clear asks, seamless registration elements — all alumni appreciate this. And post-pandemic, we’ve seen an increased appetite for in-person engagement. This spring, we hosted a graduation celebration on the lawn of the Alumni Center, and 1,500 seniors joined for an afternoon of food, music, photos, and fun. We will keep this momentum going and communicate post-graduation about the ways the Alumni Association can help them navigate what’s next.
Hibel: Graduation just took place at campuses across the country. If you have one piece of advice to share with college leaders to ensure these graduating classes become involved early in their alumni years, what would it be?
McConnell: Don’t wait until they graduate! Students are future alumni, so start the engagement early, and continue the relationship with relevant ways for them to engage (career services, access to alumni when relocating, short/shareable content) so they see you as value added regardless of life stage and location.
Hibel: Please tell us more about your current role in higher education and the path that led you there.
McConnell: My first role at the Alumni Association was in the mid-1990s. I had just wrapped up my role as a summer orientation leader and got a job staffing the Alumni Center on football Saturdays. This was also the year I worked as a resident advisor and began my discovery of student affairs as a career path. Along the way, I learned about, and fell in love with helping connect people to each other and resources, with an emphasis on engaging diverse stakeholders towards a common goal. My professional roles have often been at the hub of activity, effecting change in partnership with talented people around me. When I returned to the Alumni Association in 2011, it was to design the community for the LEAD Scholars Program, a merit scholarship created to support student diversity. That role evolved, and I was afforded opportunities to learn and lead areas of both student and alumni engagement and, eventually, university relations and development. As the current acting president and CEO of the Alumni Association, the scope has changed, but the essence of the work is similar and very exciting when you consider the challenge of finding relevant ways to engage a global network that encompasses 659,000+ alumni. Now when I spend time with Michigan alumni, I have a different perspective (and appreciation) of the stories they share about the impact of their collegiate experience.
Hibel: What keeps you engaged working in higher education?
McConnell: I love seeing students blossom and become themselves, create impact in their corners of the world as alumni, and form connections out of shared appreciation of their alma mater. At the heart of alumni engagement is building relationships and resources for impact — fortunate work indeed! Another source of inspiration is volunteering with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). This summer, I’m faculty chair for the Young Alumni and Student Engagement conference. I love seeing the future of the profession at this annual meeting, learning emerging trends, and partnering with talented colleagues to create a meaningful conference experience for attendees.