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how to engage alumni

Alumni Kevin Light Photo

As seen in SIRC.

Alumni are the heart of any sport organization and have the passion, experience and drive to champion the growth of the sport they love - if they are authentically engaged. It is not uncommon for former athletes to feel disenfranchised from their club, federation, university, association, or sports organization – a sentiment that can be reversed with concerted and strategic effort. Whether your targeted group of alumni are Olympians, athletes or volunteers, deepening and enriching these relationships allows an organization to engage and cultivate its community while providing this key stakeholder group with an essential role within their strategic plan.

Step 1: Determine Program Goals

The first step in developing a successful alumni engagement program is to identify outcomes for the program that align with the strategic goals and mission of the organization.

To get started, consider the following:

  • Identify short and long term goals, such as:

  • Nurturing relationships and re-engaging alumni

  • Increasing awareness of services available to alumni, such as programming, resources and events

  • Diversifying programming with new initiatives to support alumni

  • Encouraging a larger and more diverse participation within the organization

  • Recognizing alumni as role models and ambassadors for your organization

  • Benefiting from alumni expertise and experience

  • Integrate an engagement strategy into the organization’s strategic plan

  • Where and how does this program fit?

  • Is there buy-in from the board and staff?

  • Are there resources available to support this initiative?

  • Consider how this program will work within the organization

  • Will it be volunteer driven – an outside organization led by alumni? (e.g., the University of British Columbia’s 13th Man Foundation)

  • Will it run internally with a volunteer committee reporting to the CEO/ED?

Step 2: Define Alumni

Next, the term alumni must be defined as it pertains to the organization. In the most basic sense, the term “alumni” refers to a former member of a group, company, organization, or association. It is important to seek guidance from within the organization’s key constituent groups to determine whom “alumni” captures. Alumni could include athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers, including Board members. For example, when surveyed, one National Sport Federation’s community self-identified as alumni from club level members to Masters (and everything in between), while another made the decision to narrow its scope to National Team participants who competed at the Olympics and World Championships. Within the education system, alumni are more easily defined as those who have graduated from the institution. What works for one organization may not work for another.

To define and structure your alumni program, begin with these steps:

  • Identify who is leading the initiative

  • Decide whether this will be internally led by management (e.g., the Freestyle Canada Alumni Program) or externally led by volunteers with minimal administrative support from the organization

  • If led by volunteers, be sure to name a council chair or president who is well-respected within the community, has the time to commit, and inclination to lead such an effort

  • Define the group

  • Define the group by the tradition of the organization (such as a more narrow scope of former student athletes, National Team members, etc.)

  • Or, allow the alumni community to self-identify through a survey when announcing the initiative – this survey should also gather input from the community to inform programming (e.g. Canoe Kayak Canada’s Alumni Insights infographic)

Step 3: Engagement

Engagement precedes investment, making it essential that alumni feel connected and involved so as to strengthen their affiliation to the organization, and ultimately become long-term supporters and ambassadors. Consider specific celebratory events and anniversaries, such as the Rowing Canada Aviron 25th Anniversary row, celebrating the success of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Canadian rowing team, annual traditions like Homecoming (e.g., Queen’s University) and end of season celebrations (e.g., Friends of McGill Hockey gala). Events such as these celebrate an organization’s past, and engage new and upcoming athletes and supporters.

Remember to:

  • Formally announce the alumni initiative, and implement a communication plan to keep stakeholders informed

  • Share survey results from previous step to ensure transparency with community

  • Work with lead volunteer (alumnus) to build out an alumni council (e.g., Canoe Kayak Canada)

  • Draft a mandate and role descriptions for council – informed by input previously gathered via survey

  • Ensure diverse representation (regions, disciplines, gender etc)

  • Build and grow an alumni contact list

  • Develop programming with a focus on:

  • Networking

  • Skill Development

  • Mentorship

  • Communications

  • Social Events and/or

  • Revenue Generation

Effective alumni programs are a critical component to any organization’s long-term success. Long gone are the days of simply governing a sport or overseeing operations – organizations that are capable of taking a more holistic view of their entire ecosystem, and understanding how valuable their community is, will be better positioned to become more independent and sustainable.

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