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University alumni relations involve networking and maintaining links

University alumni networks do many things, from linking alumni with their former alma mater and fellow students to maintaining contacts with academic staff and providing information about interesting research areas at the university. But what makes a good alumni network? What tools and strategies work, and which ones would universities recommend?

‘The personal approach is absolutely crucial,’ says Silke Rodenberg. ‘Alumni want to feel that they are valued as individuals and are being approached personally.’ And Rodenberg is well qualified to make this assessment: since 2004, she’s headed Heidelberg University’s central alumni initiative, Heidelberg Alumni International (HAI). The programme has been running since 1996 – till 2010 it has targeted exclusively foreign students from outside Germany.

A flagship alumni relations project: the Heidelberg University Association in New York

What marks Heidelberg University out, though, is that it has its own liaison office in New York, where the Heidelberg University Association was launched in 2008. The Association manages the University’s transatlantic cooperation arrangements, looks after staff and student exchanges, and maintains links with alumni. ‘International alumni relations in the USA is, of course, a flagship project for us,’ says Silke Rodenberg. The Heidelberg University Association has a permanent member of staff in New York, but in other universities, alumni relations are often looked after by volunteers who do this work alongside other roles.

US universities are actually a model for efficient alumni relations. The very first alumni club was set up back in 1821 by graduates of Williams College in Williamsburg, Massachusetts and now boasts 28,000 members. Germany has been slower to develop this area of work, with many alumni associations or networks set up around ten years ago, but Silke Rodenberg thinks that virtually all the country’s universities and colleges now actively manage their alumni relations.

Interaction through social networks underpins alumni relations

‘We couldn’t do it without Facebook, Xing and similar social networks,’ says Bernd Hackstette, who heads Göttingen University’s alumni office. Like Silke Rodenberg, he believes that using social media is as essential to good alumni relations as the personal approach.

So what makes for efficient alumni relations? An up-to-date database, print products, such as magazines, and electronic newsletters are vital, of course, but online platforms are also essential to building relationships. Silke Rodenberg thinks ‘we can make use of anything that’s interactive.’ Former students are used to sharing and interacting via social networks such as Facebook, Xing and the Alumniportal Deutschland or universities’ own password-protected alumni websites. But it’s not all one-way traffic: in China, for example, where Twitter and Facebook are outlawed, Bernd Hackstette uses the Chinese micro blogging site Sina-Weibo to get the word out.

And Hackstette also sees another benefit here: ‘We can use social networks not only to reach large numbers of alumni but also to tap into a wider passive readership. These people may not react immediately, but they also use these sites to maintain long-term contact with alumni and to network with former fellow students or to re-establish contact with their former school or college.’

Successful alumni relations mean making relationships right from the start

Not every university has celebrity alumni, but Göttingen University makes use of two of its past students, former German President Richard von Weizsäcker and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, to take part in events, answering students’ questions or sending video messages. Bernd Hackstette stresses, ‘You can’t wait until the students have left the university to start making relationships. Alumni relations start the minute they enrol.’ He adds that it is important to have former students giving presentations to freshers to convince them of the importance of networking: ‘Maintaining links face to face or via alumni portals is an important way of making links that will open doors for students’ later careers.’

July 2013

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