Engaged Alumni at Willamette U: Why Would You Want Them?

Would you?

Short answer: it depends.

This post is part of a continuing conversation about ways to improve alumni engagement at Willamette University, located in Salem, Oregon. Willamette is one of the oldest universities in the western United States (“The First University in the West”) and is an independent, nonsectarian institution of higher learning founded in 1842, which educates men and women in the liberal arts and in selected professional fields. I am a graduate of Willamette, and have a great deal of fondness for the school and appreciation of how my experience at the school shaped me into the adult I am today. The original post, and follow-up response from Senior Director of Alumni Relation’s Denise Callahan’s follow-up response can be found here.

Willamette President M. Lee Pelton has staked out a vision for Willamette University, and its graduate’s future, that is both admirable and ambitious. Lee sees Willamette’s grads as leaving the university with the skills and abilities to participate successfully in a future world and workplace which is global, frequently changing, and diverse in nature.

I think it’s a great vision, and spot-on in terms of what Willamette can and should do moving forward.

That vision, though, has at a minimum certain foundational elements for graduates in terms of the qualities and attributes they bring in as students, and their experience and development while they are at Willamette:

  1. A graduate’s ability to think and present with intellectual rigor and effective presence.
  2. Interpersonal skills (“practical skills” as Malcolm Gladwell calls them) to successfully compete.
  3. Creative abilities (following Dan Pink’s forecasting on the workplace of the future) as well as solid analytical abilities.
  4. Leadership skills including a passion for learning, self-reflection, and resilience as supported by research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Pozner.
  5. An understanding of career opportunities and options that is developed early enough in someone’s duration of study to permit adequate exploration, vetting, and networking.
  6. Access to business / organizational networks and relationships that provide entrance – and in some cases the only entre – into jobs and other career opportunities.

Items 1-4 are clearly the province of the school, faculty and staff and the academic and student development programs that the University supports.

Items 5 & 6, to be viable however, require alumni participation. And, by the way, not just passive participation, but participation of the type that requires engaged alumni.

My work with the Robert Toigo Foundation is telling. Toigo is an Oakland, California based organization that provides training and development programs for its business school student “Fellows”, and job search and career networking support and help for both its Fellows and its alums. While I suspect (but don’t know) that Toigo regularly taps alums for development funding, I do know that the foundation involves alums actively in a number of ways in the organization including annual events, mentoring programs, and career advice and job search networking.

Far more than the B-schools from which the Toigo alums graduate (the usual suspects of “top tier” schools: Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Columbia, Chicago, etc.) Toigo has figured out how to engage and maintain that engagement with its alums. My experience with Toigo alums engagement is that it’s not only high enough for any Toigo alum to “take the call” and help, but even higher enough to “make the call” and clear the path for someone.

Strong engagement is the mutual intersection of interest, values, and commitment and that’s a good way to think about the level of alumni engagement needed at Willamette in order for the vision Lee Pelton’s charted to be realized.

The world of business demands that higher level of engagement from alums if you hope to have Willamette graduates compete in a diverse, globalized economy. While the old boys club is still alive, it’s been joined by countless of other networks that operate with similar if not better effectiveness.

Many universities – including Willamette – would do well to figure out how to create that level of engagement amongst their alumni.

This topic of alumni engagement originally kicked off with a letter I posted to Lee following my 35th reunion last month, an event that was unfortunately not so different – and not so engaging – as the previous college reunions at Willamette I’d attended. I had low expectations coming into the event, and those low expectations were realized.

As someone who has worked in the area of organizational development and employee (not alumni) engagement, I observed low participation at the most recent event – including absent board of trustees members – from reunion classes: low participation which in my experience is frequently is a symptom of low engagement.

And as someone who (just my luck) also does large group session design and facilitation I also experienced an overall reunion event design problem: the structure of the reunion weekend was neither cohesive nor appeared to be directed toward clear outcomes. As my former work colleague from Tigard, Diane Lumley, might note, it was “dog’s breakfast” of activities.

My words to Lee: “Willamette can do better.”

So here are some thoughts on steps I would take were I Lee (or Denise if empowered) moving forward:

Get a task force of alums (and others) who know the space together who work (or have worked) in student affairs or the recruiting / training / organizational development side of HR as an ad hoc task force.  I might include some folks from Career Services at Willamette and some students as well. Hunch is they’d be delighted to be asked, and would give you a place to start. I’d be glad to help.

Collect good data. What, for example, do alums want from their alma mater, and how does that map to what Willamette finds in its long-term interest?

Alumni engagement is not brand engagement or employee engagement, but it has enough similarities to make it interesting. Brad Phipps piece Brands Create Customers has a good metaphor for how to think about the subject. I don’t sense the university knows what specifically engages alums for the different types of activities, events, and involvement that might be possible. There is a sort of chicken and egg issue here: does the school suggest stuff and have alums respond, or do you provide a blank slate and ask alums what they’d like to do? The survey folks might suggest you might do both.

And by the way: while I think it’s great that a follow-up survey (pdf copy here) was sent out following reunion weekend, asking about quantity or quality of food at a luncheon is “bark on trees” type of perspective. I’d pull thinking back a couple of levels and start looking at the forest.

Get clear on the degree of University commitment and priority regarding the role that the school is prepared to engage and involve alums. Sort of like dieting, it may sound like a good idea to lose weight but when faced with the common requirements – exercise, change your eating habits, and take care of yourself – folks realize the shedding some pounds is not the first five things on their to-do list.

I noted above that one of the things I would do is to ask alums how they’d like to be connected to the school, and their degree of interest and commitment to the things they suggest. Unless you understand the degree of priority and commitment it’s not helpful to offer things that might be low priority and low commitment.


There are a host of ways I can think of that Willamette can get alums further involved and perhaps even engaged with the school. But until you’ve done the steps above going down the “we could do” path is about as effective as a kids’ attempts at the birthday piñata: you’ll eventually hit it but there will be lots of misses before it happens.

Earlier this week I sat in on a presentation in the evening by Stanford professor Carol Dweck at my son’s grade school in Marin County. Dweck is internationally renowned for her work in the area of children and performance and the visit was part of a 4-month community read project. I was joined with numerous alumni families and outside visitors to whom the program had been advertised.

Next weekend my son’s former preschool, the Little School in San Francisco [Disclosure: I’m on the Board of Trustees], will host a 25th Anniversary Open House, where something like several hundred alumni families are expected to attend and will see an event program spearheaded by Wendy Yanowitch that will not only provide a chance for reconnection, but show and tell what’s changed since they were at the school and where the school is pointed to go in the future.

The week after next I may join my spouse and sit in on the regular update from Brown University’s President regarding what’s going on at his alma mater, with the likely give and take (based on past sessions) about what’s important to Brown alums who are 3,100 miles from their alma mater in San Francisco.

Today the local newspaper ran an advertisement for something called a “One Day University” which consists of eight different lecturers on different subjects for a cost of  $219 (with a special offer of $99).

Each of these activities involves alums, and all of them are the types of things that Willamette could be doing if it made sense.

As I’ve said before, and still believe, Willamette can do better than it’s been doing in the area of alumni engagement. All of the examples I cited above are from organizations that have ambitious thoughts, rather than small-minded aspirations.

Can Willamette be doing better in the area of alumni engagement?

Yes. In fact, much, much better.

Let me know if I can help.

One thought on “Engaged Alumni at Willamette U: Why Would You Want Them?

  1. Pingback: [Follow-Up] Does Willamette U. Want Engaged Alums? Answer: Maybe | Life Back West

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