The Future of Alumni Networking is at the Grass Roots


The Future of Alumni Networking is at the Grass Roots

Jul 14, 2008By Michael Stoner

That’s a fair summary of the session entitled “The Future of Community and Affinity in an Online World” presented by Daniel Guhr, Andy Shaindlin from Caltech, and Louis Alexander from MIT at the CASE Summit on 13 July.

Guhr, from Illuminate Consulting Group, provided a fairly high‐level view of today’s social networking environment. [I can’t reproduce Guhr’s slides, but a dramatic visual and a graph of activity on social networks is here.]

One of the most telling comments, as far as I’m concerned, is that today’s kids are participating in social networking environments like Club Penguin and Webkinz. They’ll continue networking as they graduate to Facebook (or, more likely, a successor) when they’re teens and ready to apply to and enter college. Then, after graduation, they’ll move into a corporate social network like the ones that are being built by McKinsey & Company and other large progressive networked organizations.

In any case, coming generations will live much of their social life online; the Internet will hold things together.

So in this environment, what use, really, is a closed, proprietary online network? Andy Shaindlin pointed out, “Today’s alumni have demonstrated quite clearly that they’ve decided what tools to use, and don’t care what you give them.” There are plenty of high‐quality services that are easy to use, so it quite possible that in the future self‐organizing groups of alumni could hold their own reunions without any input from an institution or alumni professionals.

Of course, that happened in the old days, too, when a group of alumni friends called each other on the phone and planned a weekend at the lake with their spouses. But it’s so much easier today.

Shaindlin pointed out that alumni relations professionals still think of alumni as “outside” the institution but now that they are increasingly holding a conversation about the institution without us, we are the outsiders. “They are at the center of the community and we visit them,” he noted.

Outsiders can still play a valuable role, however. A new model for alumni relations may be as the coach that helps these self‐organizing groups connect with valuable institutional resources and coaxes them into meeting institutional goals.

MIT’s Alumni Association has worked with entering students through a Facebook presence for four years now (the first class of students with whom the Institute’s alumni office has had a Facebook‐mediated relationship just graduated). Lou Alexander pointed out that “we can’t control the content or direction of these conversations, but we do want to be part of them and influence them.”

This past year, the Alumni Association used Facebook to identify leaders for the Senior Gift program and these students made their asks using Facebook. He reported: “In the first year of Facebook, participation in the senior class gift almost doubled (to 51 %). Last year, it jumped to 64%.” Sounds as if meeting people where they are makes good sense.

The primary shift taking place: the university or institution once held the information necessary for the alumni network to scale and the only way that alumni could access that network was to play by whatever rules the institution made up and to use its system. That’s changed: now the power is with the people and the conversations are going on without the institution mediating them. It’s a powerful paradigm shift, and alumni relations professionals need to be prepared for it to happen—and probably sooner rather than later.

  • Michael Stoner

    Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?