Reflections On Alumni Engagement During COVID-19

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Duane Wiles (UTennessee) shares his takeaways as a featured panelist in two recent webinars: Alumni Relations in Uncertain Times (April 2020) and Engagement During COVID-19 for Large Operations (May 2020).

Alumni Relations in Uncertain Times, by Duane Wiles (UTennessee)

Dr. Jay Dillion, Executive Director of Alumni Relations at Cal Berkeley convened five Chief Alumni Officers with over eight decades of combined leadership in Alumni Relations on Wednesday, April 8 to weigh in on events, digital engagement, staff and strategy during this uncertain time of COVID-19. Jay managed a one-hour discussion with five panelists across six states, including fellow CAAE members Julie Sina (UCLA) and Cindy Fredrick (UVA). More than 650 people tuned in live from Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, the UK, and US. Over 250 watched the Webinar On-Demand. Click here to listen to the Webinar On-Demand. Some key takeaways from the webinar discussion were: 

•    Most alumni staff are working remotely. Some VP’s and AVP’s work once or twice a week in the office. 

•    All alumni events have been canceled until the end of July. 

•    Award galas have been pushed back to fall 2021. No decisions have been made yet on home tailgates or other fall related events. 

•    Every school represented on the panel was developing contingency plans for the fall. For example, most schools developed a plan A, B, and C or scenario 1, 2, and 3. Plan A assumed fall returned back to normal, students were back on campus and fall sports were in full swing. Plan B assumed fall was operating under a new normal with hybrid courses being offered (in-class and online), events being held with smaller crowds (less than 50-100), and social distancing and sanitization protocols were in place. Plan C assumed classes were being offered 100% online, staff still working remotely, and all events were virtual. 

•    Some schools partnered with other units on campus to host webinars for alumni. 

•    Every school increased the number of virtual engagement opportunities and communications via social media and email. 

•    Some creative virtual programming included Virtual 5K events, FB Live alumni takeovers, Virtual Volunteer Leadership Weekend on Zoom, and Virtual Happy Hours and Coffee Chats. 

•    Some schools are dealing with major revenue loss from alumni affinity programs (e.g. alumni travel). 

Engagement During COVID-19 for Large Operations, by Duane Wiles (UTennessee)

Mirko Widenhorn, Senior Director of Engagement Strategy at iModules moderated a panel discussion focused on the experiences at larger shops with three panelists talking about how they’ve adjusted strategies in this current environment.  

In a situation that continues to change on a daily, if not hourly, basis, and with the lives of many of our graduates impacted by stay at home orders, our planned communications for this time period have needed to change pretty quickly. iModules felt compelled to bring a group of Alumni Relations professionals together to share their realities, how they are handling situations, and how they are engaging their constituents, with CAAE member Duane Wiles (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Julie Lafford (York University) and Kirsten Lundeen (Boston University). This webinar was one of a series of webinars around COVID-19 hosted by iModules. Over 100+ tuned in live to watch; the recording is available by clicking this link. Some key takeaways of the webinar discussion were:

•    In recent weeks, our alumni offices responded in different ways to George Floyd’s murder and systemic racism against blacks. Some alumni offices took a strong stance and shared quickly messages from the university denouncing racism, bias, and injustice and stating clearly that black lives matter. While other offices did not respond in a quick manner and came across rather timid not mentioning black lives matter. 

•    Many alumni offices continue to struggle with the uncertainty of COVID-19. Fall plans for alumni are still on hold, as offices are waiting on university and athletics responses. Most major large scale alumni events has been canceled for the fall (e.g., Award galas, Homecoming). 

•    Some schools are planning to host Virtual Homecoming events. 

•    All panelists agreed that a lot of the virtual programming happening now will stick around post COVID. Most staff have adapted and will be able to incorporate into their normal programming. 

•    There is a lot of uncertainty regarding budgets. Some schools have already started the process of preparing for across the board 10-15% cuts. 

•    Emails have increased two and three-fold at most schools with opt-out rates holding steady. Most alums want to hear what’s happening at the university. 

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