Leveraging Alumni Stories

“Can we do something like this?”

It’s one of my favorite challenges—and in the case of Path to Passion, a very promising question. When Jenny first came to me with her idea, she had been shot down because it seemed complicated. We talked about what she wanted, and in 10 minutes we had the basics hammered out.

How It Started

When Jenny moved into the Volunteer Coordinator position, 450 alumni had filled out an engagement survey stating that they wanted to give back as career mentors and admissions champions. Unfortunately, at that time, those opportunities weren’t really available to them. Career development wanted job placement, internships and job shadowing instead of mentors; and admissions wasn’t ready to onboard alumni volunteers. Jenny was confronted with the challenge of making sure these alumni still felt valued even though we did not have the volunteer opportunities that they wanted. While she was thinking up ideas, she was also watching her firstborn look at colleges. He had a strong interest in economics and finance but no desire to be a banker. Jenny knew that our liberal arts majors went on to great things regardless of their majors—so how could she show this to her son?

Path to Passion solved a conundrum. The opportunity to create a profile and make your way to Jenny’s rolodex of volunteers would keep our alumni engaged beyond that initial survey, and creating a searchable directory of outcomes would benefit prospective students like Jenny’s son.

In its first year, we’ve developed and expanded our searchable directory to include academics and career fields. We’ve increased engagement with alumni—some of whom were previously hard to find. We’ve placed various alumni on panels and found inspiration for new events. With alumni who participated in Path to Passion we saw twice the conversion in monetary giving. And finally, we generated numerous story leads and social content.

How We Did It

After we realized that the CMS side of things would not be a problem, Jenny set out to create a form that was in depth but not daunting. The questions shape the narrative for the alumni, focusing on their experience with Washington College and the liberal arts. Any school can create the narrative it wants with specific questions. If yours is a research-based institution, ask questions about what kinds of research influenced the alumnus’s path. If your students transfer on to four-year programs from your school, tell the story of how starting at your institution helped them achieve longer-term goals.

We use paid third-party service Wufoo to run the form because it can employ logic and also allows for file uploads; it goes a bit beyond what our CMS’s forms can currently handle.

Lists of alumni were built through the aforementioned survey, through personal contacts, and through some good old-fashioned detective work. Jenny found interesting alumni via Google and then stalked them (in a completely appropriate and legal way). Some of the connections she built from this seemingly simple research provided incredibly interesting stories and fantastic opportunities for these alumni to work with faculty and students.

After they are contacted and complete the form, profiles are created and tagged in our CMS. We use LiveWhale, which makes the idea of profiles super easy because it has a profiles module we were already using for student (and alumni) profiles. If your CMS doesn’t have a profiles module, you can use some sort of dynamic content to make profiles. If you go that route, make sure you come up with an established style guide so your profiles look consistent!

The tagging nomenclature is vital, as it drives the search function of our widgets. We decided ahead of time that we would use academic programs, but as we were creating the form we came up with general career fields to use, and we haven’t expanded these too much. The academic program tags are somewhat overwhelming; we don’t need career fields to get out of hand, too! In the future, we may add tags for athletics—it will depend on the buy-in we get from our coaches and athlete alumni.

How It Turned Out

I can talk in depth about the varied experiences we had reaching out to alumni with personalized emails, with letters from professors, and through general word-of-mouth discussion of Path to Passion—but that’s a long story for another time. The TL;DR version is that our first year went pretty well. We’ve gathered a plethora of profiles, Jenny found inspiration for a new event (Lead Like a Girl), and we’ve continued to grow the program. Recently, we presented our journey at eduWeb Digital Summit in Denver, Colorado. That experience helped me feel like we’ve got something good—and I look forward to continuing to work on this project.