Universities Seek to Build Life-Long Networks
CAIRO—From dinners, reunions and galas to e-mail blasts, magazines and messages on LinkedIn, some universities in the Arab world are using diverse methods to connect with alumni and build relations that help fuel donations back to the institutions.
Some of those efforts—long a key pillar for universities in the United States—are still developing. But they are effective, some experts say, and are growing increasingly ambitious.
In 2007, the American University of Beirut’s Board of Trustees created an alumni association, which was previously independent from the university. The association works to engage its vast alumni pool of 55,000 people globally through chapters defined by professional interests and geography. The association also communicates through social media and an alumni magazine, offers social and professional networking and holds reunions and legacy ceremonies for multi-general alumni families.
“You try to have programming relevant to alumni and where they are in the world,” said Richard Brow, vice-president for university advancement at the American University of Beirut. “In terms of how do we align this with fundraising, what we say in alumni relations is that you first start with friend-raising, so you stay close to your graduates after they graduate; you engage them appropriate to their interests and then the fundraising will follow.”
From July last year to May, the American University in Beirut raised $35 million—half of which is from alumni, Brow said, including donations from alumni trustees. In 2016, it will start its most daring fundraising campaign to date with a target now set at $500 million.
But alumni relations aren’t solely about raising money, which can be used for anything from supporting scholarships to maintaining campus libraries. “An effective alumni program cultivates alumni as champions of the universities,” he said. They are your ambassadors, your employers of your current students, job recruiters, a tremendous source of advice and examples of people who have gone into the world to achieve remarkable things, he said.
“There’s a tremendous value to a very engaged alumni body that goes beyond simply the fundraising income and sometimes that’s hard to quantify,” he added. “But when you look at them it’s a very powerful network of people across a wide range of professions that we can benefit from.”
At American universities, alumni relations are a key feature of what is termed “advancement,” which also includes fundraising, marketing and communications. The aim is to secure private financial support from potential donors, engage alumni as supporters, volunteers and advocates of an institution, promote and market a university to prospective students and others, and communicate about an institution with those who have a stake in its success, according to the U.S.-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
The concept has existed as an organized profession for more than a century but experienced revolutionary change over the last 15 years due to technological and social developments, blogged Andrew Shaindlin, associate vice president for university advancement at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, which has a campus in Qatar. Moving forward, universities need to focus on their causes rather than their activities in order fuel donations, he wrote on his blog.
“For a university, it’s the difference between describing a laboratory building versus describing the world-changing research that will take place inside that building,” he said.
“We need alumni to understand that their financial support is critical,” he wrote, “but we also need our institutional leaders to understand the value alumni relations can bring to advancement.”
At many universities in the United States, financial support from alumni and other key supporters is often gathered in part through annual funds that generate gifts on a yearly basis. Some private institutions in the Arab world have also adopted the practice.
At the American University in Cairo (AUC), the annual fund is one of the main sources of donations from alumni and various stakeholders, said Sara Bakr, Senior Annual Fund Officer at the university. The gifts go toward financial aid, faculty recruitment, research and campus facilities, according to the university’s website, and 86 percent of those who contribute to the fund are alumni.
This year AUC targeted $300,000 in donations—raising about $275,000 by the end of May – through the program, which offers annual membership to giving clubs according to levels of donations. “As you go up the giving circle, the benefits increase,” Bakr said. The benefits are generally in the form of intangible benefits, such as events with the university president. The majority of contributors fall in the first circle, Bakr said, which is the Loyal for Life club, where gift commitments range from $1 to $499.
The university also offers alumni activities, chapters and events that collectively and continuously connect alumni to the university. “When the alumni feel the university is making an effort to keep them connected, then our job as fundraisers becomes easier,” Bakr said.
Some efforts are still emerging. The AUC Annual Fund team is working to develop a fundraiser in each alumni committee who encourages peers to donate. “We thought it would be a good point because at the end of the day, colleagues, whether students or alumni, tend to get encouraged to give back or contribute when they are asked by their fellow alumni or by their fellow students, not by staff members,” Bakr said. “It does make a better impact.”
American universities are not alone in their efforts to build effective alumni. The practice is becoming more popular in Europe and some parts of Asia, such as Singapore.
In the Arab region the practice is also spreading, although it seems spotty and goals vary. An alumni-affairs office at the U.S.-accredited Zayed University, a government university in the United Arab Emirates, for example, seeks to encourage alumni to become ambassadors of the university and envisions “a permanent relationship between Zayed University and its graduates that will contribute to the lifelong learning of alumni, the development of the University, and the growth of the nation.”
At the German University in Cairo, a student career office seeks to help more than 7,000 alumni pursue better futures through career opportunities, development workshops, scholarship opportunities, counseling services and alumni gatherings. And the University of Jordan has an alumni association, as well an alumni club created in 1970 by a group of enthusiastic graduates.
But there are challenges to creating effective alumni relations, particularly for new universities. Only seven classes have graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, which was established in Doha a decade ago. All alumni are under 30 years old and most are just starting to develop their careers, “so we don’t necessarily have the older role models and influencers of a typical group of Carnegie Mellon alumni in the United States,” said Murry Evans, executive director of marketing and public relations at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.
Moreover, its less than 400 alumni represent about 40 different countries and all their cultural and religious traditions must be respected at alumni events, Evans said.
However, alumni feel a sense of loyalty to both the Qatar campus and Carnegie Mellon as a whole, he said. “We see them giving back to the university by volunteering their time to lecture in a class, attend an event, or enthusiastically represent the university when asked,” he added.
In the end, the goal of many institutions now is to instill in students the sense that their time in classrooms is only the beginning of a lifelong connection.