Now We're Talking
Opening the Dialogue Between St. Lawrence and
Our Youngest Alumni
By Kimberly Robinson Hissong '94
Over 50% of young alumni recently surveyed said that St. Lawrence
currently plays "no active role" in their lives.* How
can this be? Have we as a University failed to educate our youngest
alumni on the importance of maintaining lifelong connections with
each other and with St. Lawrence? I think not…but the lines
of communication need to be reopened and we [young alumni] need to
be communicated with in a way that is special to our unique set of
experiences, needs, and circumstances.
As the new director of alumni and parent programs and a young alumna
myself, I feel passionately about the words I spoke at a recent presentation
my staff and I did for the University's Alumni Executive Council.
For whatever reason, there is a large contingent of young alumni who
feel disconnected from our alma mater. As a result, many of them haven't
been back to campus since graduation; they don't volunteer; and
they haven't participated in the tradition of annual giving.
Our interactions with young alumni lead us to believe that they don't
feel poorly about their time at St. Lawrence; in fact, many of them
feel very positive about their experiences. It's simply that
we have failed to connect with our youngest graduates in ways they
All is not lost, however. In that same survey, those young alumni
who responded that St. Lawrence plays "no active role" in
their lives said they want St. Lawrence to do so, particularly in career
development and social networking. They reported feeling engaged with
the University and well informed about University initiatives, more
so than young alumni at several peer institutions. They read the
magazine, access the University Web site and attend regional alumni
events at a greater frequency than their peers elsewhere.
So, what's at the heart of the problem? What I believe is lacking
is a "connectedness" to the University that comes with
an understanding of what the University can offer young graduates and
what they, in turn, should give back to St. Lawrence. That's
where the dialogue begins.
Here are just a few examples of how are we making a concerted effort
to communicate with young alumni in different ways:
- SLU News
- GOLD Link Newsletter
- St. Lawrence magazine
- Online Community
- Staff visits
- Young alumni focus groups and surveys
SLU News is a weekly online newsletter designed to
keep alumni informed of University initiatives and events, alumni accomplishments
and fundraising priorities. Over 550 alumni have taken advantage of
this free service, and nearly 25% are young alumni (defined as those
who graduated 10 or fewer years ago). You can gain access to this newsletter
by e-mailing Colleen Fenity at email@example.com
The GOLD Link Newsletter bi-annually communicates
fundraising and alumni relations activities to young alumni and serves
to "link" "Graduates of the Last Decade" (the
source of the acronym "GOLD") to their University. Articles
demonstrate how St. Lawrence continues to provide valuable services
to our recent graduates in the form of career networking, Laurentian
events, reunions and so on. The newsletter outlines the importance
of young alumni giving back to St. Lawrence through their time and
Although the magazine's audience ranges in
age from the low 20s to over 100, it continues to be an important tool
for keeping young alumni connected to St. Lawrence, particularly via
their Class Notes, where we place items on upcoming regional events,
career networking opportunities and fundraising challenges so as to
catch their eye. We also make a concerted effort to keep our youngest
class reporters as active as possible, so that columns are always filled
with the latest comings and goings of their classmates. As demonstrated
by this issue, communicating with and highlighting the accomplishments
of our young alumni is a top priority.
A much-awaited online community will be launched
in early fall, allowing alumni to connect with classmates through a
secured e-mail directory. Alumni will be able to search for classmates
by name and class year. Future add-ons, such as chat rooms and discussion
boards, are being explored. We are very excited about the community
and know that our younger alumni especially are eager to make use of
this long-awaited service.
Alumni and Parent Programs staff members visit over
500 alumni each year. Two staff members, Rob Larrabee '97 and
Colleen Fenity (a 2002 graduate of Hamilton), visit over 100 young
alumni a year. The purpose of those visits is to keep young alumni
informed of University programs and initiatives, to get their feedback
on the direction the University is headed, and to encourage them to
make St. Lawrence a philanthropic priority through gifts of time and
money. Face-to-face conversations are key to making lasting connections
between the University and its youngest graduates.
Focus groups and surveys are another
valuable tool for gaining direct information from young alumni on their
undergraduate experiences, attitudes about St. Lawrence, and volunteer
and giving behaviors. We have conducted focus groups in New York, Albany,
Boston and Washington, D.C., and attempted non-donor focus groups in
those same cities with limited success. We also surveyed young alumni
in the classes of 1993, 1994, 1998 and 1999 via e-mail and mail. Our
goal in both cases was to provide an open forum for young alumni to
share their experiences, offer feedback on St. Lawrence's master
plan and evaluate the impact their undergraduate education has had
on their lives. Among several key findings:
- Young alumni, in general, feel very positive about their time at
- They stay connected to the University through the St. Lawrence magazine
- They feel we need to increase our career services and networking
- They aren't sure how to volunteer for the University
- They don't know how gifts to the University are used
- Alumni five years out report having received more financial aid
and more student loans than alumni 10 years out
- The most popular reasons for giving are to honor the education
they received and to provide for future students
- The most popular reason for not giving is perceived inability to
We've already begun to use this information to alter our approach
with young alumni. In recent months, events in cities such as New York,
Boston, Albany, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., have been specifically
geared toward them. These have welcomed our most recent graduates to
their new cities and helped them build social connections. We've
also worked with the career services staff to hold business networking
events in those same cities, as well as career workshops designed to
help young alumni who want to change careers. The feedback we have
received from participants has been extremely positive. We look forward
to expanding those opportunities to other cities in the near future.
We've also taken a proactive approach to recruiting young alumni
volunteers. Over 50% of our newest Saints Network Event volunteers
are young alumni. Volunteers are the backbone of many of our fundraising,
Reunion, admissions and career service functions, and young alumni
bring a new and creative energy to that force.
Young alumni can volunteer for the University in any of the following
Saints Network Event Volunteers help us plan social,
career networking, athletic, educational, cultural and community service
events throughout the country.
Fundraising Committee members (e.g., GOLD Leadership
Committee, Reunion Development Committees, GOLD Team Challenges) help
raise critical dollars and participation for the University.
Reunion Planning Volunteers organize Reunion Weekend
activities for classmates (e.g, hospitality center, entertainment,
workshops, parade, Reunion Web page).
Alumni Career Advisors assist with career advising,
networking capabilities, summer jobs, internships and career opportunities.
Shadow A Saint Program Volunteers host a current
St. Lawrence student at their place of employment for one day. The
objective is for the student to get an inside view on the "world
of work" and to explore a particular field of his or her interest.
Laurentian Admissions Associates (LAAers) interview
prospective students, represent the University at local college fairs,
identify and actively encourage potential St. Lawrence students by
maintaining personal contact with them throughout the recruitment process,
write or telephone students who have applied or have been accepted,
attend (or host) receptions/events for prospective students and their
families, and act as official alumni liaisons to local secondary school
It's critical that we get the word out to young alumni that
their time is valuable to us. Philanthropy comes in many shapes and
sizes. Volunteering is just one way that young alumni can give back
to a University that has given them so much.
It's clear to us from the focus group and survey results that
if we want to increase Annual Fund participation among our last 10
years of graduates, our approach needs to change dramatically. We need
to continue to devise and implement new strategies in addition to those
named above. What we've been doing has not been working, as demonstrated
by our astonishingly low 14% young alumni participation rate. This
has a negative impact on our ranking in the U.S. News and World
Report and can have a detrimental effect on our corporate and
foundation grant opportunities. It also brings down our overall alumni
participation rate, which currently stands at 31%, our lowest since
1996-1997. That, in turn, affects how well the University provides
an education to its students, as shown in the accompanying graph.
We know that 14% participation does not accurately reflect how our
youngest graduates feel about their St. Lawrence experience. So, how
can we take steps to turn that participation number around?
The Challenge: This year, selected members of the
Board of Trustees and Alumni Council have challenged St. Lawrence alumni
to meet this participation issue head on. For each percentage of improvement
over last year's 31% overall Alumni Fund participation rate, selected
members of the Board of Trustees and Alumni Council will make personal
donations to the St. Lawrence Fund, above and beyond their expected
gifts, that total $25,000, for a maximum of $125,000 if we reach 36%
participation. Every gift helps us to build momentum to 31% and beyond.
We need our donors who give each year to continue to do so, our alumni
who give occasionally to give this year, and those who have not donated
in the past to consider a gift this year. Participation is the message
here--every gift counts. We need to let our young alumni know that
their gifts of $10, $15 or $25 have a direct impact on University programs,
initiatives and most importantly, students. Last year, gifts of $1-99
totaled over $97,300! They truly do have an impact.
Alternative Ways to Give: St. Lawrence is making
it easier than ever to make gifts to St. Lawrence. Our secured server
offers an opportunity to give online at the click
of a button. Our ACH debit service allows alumni to
have their checking or savings accounts debited each month at a minimum
of $10. Many of our youngest alumni also work for companies that will
match their giving to St. Lawrence, sometimes even doubling or tripling
the impact of their giving. The Alumni and Parent Programs Web site
hosts a new searchable database where alumni can determine if their
company has a matching gift program. We aren't
asking young alumni to make large gifts, but rather to consider making
gifts annually at an amount they feel they can afford.
New Ways to Communicate: In general, our youngest
graduates don't want to hear from me as an administrator, from
a trustee or from an Alumni Council member when it comes to giving.
They want to hear from a classmate or peer. Accordingly, this year
we are changing our appeal strategy slightly toward more personalized
requests. We've also made a concerted effort to delay solicitations
to the "first year out" class, knowing that many of our
youngest graduates are still looking for employment, applying for graduate
school, or just in flux.
Keeping in touch with young alumni remains one of our greatest challenges.
We often have incorrect phone, address and/or e-mail information. As
a result, young alumni don't hear about regional events in their
area, get invited back to reunions, hear about career service opportunities
or receive the St. Lawrence magazine. We need them to stay
in touch with us. This year, the University will offer Class of 2004
graduates a St. Lawrence e-mail address for one year. We hope this
will help them stay connected to the University and to each other and
will assist them in their job search efforts.
New Organization: Opening the dialogue with our youngest
alumni is a top priority. But, shouldn't we begin this process
even before graduation? Yes, and we've started to do just that.
Last fall, we were instrumental in the revival of the Student Alumni
Association (SAA), which is designed to help students gain valuable
leadership skills, learn more about St. Lawrence, meet alumni, network
and give back to St. Lawrence through donations of time and money.
We had a gratifying response to SAA and have 40 students on board.
They have already split into active committees: Senior Transition,
Career Services, History/Spirit/Traditions and Canton Marathon. Their
slogan, "Laurentians Working for St. Lawrence's Past, Present
and Future," demonstrates the important role they will have in
creating a successful student-alumni transition. The Alumni Council
has committed to meeting with this group regularly, creating a wonderful
networking opportunity for our students.
Altered Undergraduate Giving Program: We've
also made significant changes to the structure of our undergraduate
giving program, with an increasing focus on philanthropy education.
Our results are paying off. Already, over 20% of the senior class (2004)
has made a gift to St. Lawrence this year. The key will be to transfer
this culture of student giving into a culture of young alumni giving.
The earlier we start this dialogue, the more effective we will be in
helping our youngest graduates maintain lifelong connections and commitments
to St. Lawrence.
Kim Hissong '94, a psychology major at St. Lawrence, graduated summa
cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After serving as executive director
of Renewal House, a social service agency in her native Canton, she joined
St. Lawrence's alumni and parent programs staff in 1999 and was named
director of alumni and parent programs effective July 1, 2003.