A recent Huffington Post article explored changing demographics among alumni populations at colleges and universities.
With students of color comprising one-third of last year’s graduating class, author Marybeth Gasman urges schools to prepare for a “sea change” in their alumni communities, noting that “few colleges are prepared or preparing to engage their very diverse alumni.”
How can alumni relations programs lead their institutions in this process?
Alumni relations programs are uniquely positioned to nurture their institution’s relationships with diverse alumni. One stellar example is the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Spectrum: an Alumni Conference Celebrating Diversity. We spoke with Penn Alumni Director of Multicultural Outreach Nicole Maloy for insight on how the conference began and what successes they’ve seen as the conference enters its second year.
Maloy said that “all wise universities are thinking about what needs to be done to better engage alumni from different populations.” The Penn Alumni Relations program was no different, and as they considered what more they could be doing to engage their diverse community, some alumni suggested doing a large-scale event.
They focused on alumni of color and LGBT alumni, as they had a unique asset in the Penn Alumni Diversity Alliance – a volunteer coalition including alumni of diverse race, ethnicity, and orientation. With a long history of collaborative events, the planning began. “We were blown away by the support we received from throughout the university and from the highest levels. Our president made this a university priority,” said Maloy.
The conference was marketed to all alumni as an opportunity to rediscover Penn. “It was an important message for historically underserved populations, to celebrate what has been accomplished in terms of diversity and inclusion,” said Maloy.
What happened was remarkable: 450 participants and rave reviews.
With a bevy of programming options, the conference allowed alumni to connect in different ways: by era, racial group, gender identity, and intellectual interest. This year’s conference schedule is full of opportunities for personal enrichment, connecting with other alumni, and learning how Penn is advancing diversity on campus.
Alumni volunteer leaders were the backbone of the conference. The steering committee decided on the conference structure, speakers, topics, and marketing and outreach.
In terms of budget, Maloy compared the conference to a reunion weekend, noting the registration fee doesn’t nearly cover the costs. Corporate sponsors are solicited, and the event is co-sponsored by the Office of the President and Penn Alumni Relations.
Asked how the conference has contributed to Penn Alumni’s overall engagement strategy, Maloy said, “It gives us branding, and an opportunity to go beyond what we’ve been able to do in the past. We’ve launched a regional program called Penn Spectrum on the Road as an extension of the conference. Most importantly, we encourage all attendees to remain involved – whether through Diversity Alliance group membership, regional clubs, class reunions – anything that keeps them connected with the University beyond the conclusion of the conference. We want these relationships to be ongoing.”
Reflecting on Penn’s success with this unique event, here are a few guiding principles for launching a diversity initiative:
- Listen to the opinions, insights, and ideas of your alumni as to what initiatives are desirable and welcomed among your alumni community.
- Commit whole-heartedly to the initiative and invest staffing and resources accordingly.
- Enlist the support of the university community and communicate the value of what your initiative will accomplish for the institution.
- Engage alumni volunteers to lead the effort.
- Plan well in advance.
BWF helps colleges and universities build alumni relations programs that mobilize alumni as volunteers, donors, and goodwill ambassadors. For more on BWF’s alumni engagement services, click here.