New Alumni Directors: Serving an Institution Other Than Your Own

Chris Vlahos speaking at an alumni event

The most common question asked of any new collegiate alumni director: “So, when did you graduate (from our institution)?” Quite often, the response is, “I didn’t.”

A generation ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable for the chief alumni officer to be an alumnus from anywhere other than the institution he/she represented. Now, national search firms are commonly engaged to seek the most qualified candidates for the top position regardless of where they earned their degree.

It’s safe to say that the professional skill set has eclipsed the pedigree in terms of importance. This is the case for an institution’s president, provost, chief development officer and athletic director, so why shouldn’t this be so for the alumni relations head?

Yet alumni directors are often held to a different standard. After all, they represent us, the alumni, and we want to have the confidence that they “get it” – the culture, the traditions, the colors, the rah-rah.

Fair enough. Experience may be transferable and often preferable (it’s good to bring an outside perspective to the job), but this means that new alumni directors must develop an understanding of the nuances of their new surroundings and an appreciation for the history that preceded them. This will facilitate a smooth transition as a member of the “club.”

This isn’t easy. Think of it as being brought in to run the family business – yet, you’re not a member of the family. Having the qualifications to do the job is only the start.

Five key tips for alumni directors new to the institution:

  1. Despite what exceptional alumni relations skills you may possess, avoid any variation of the phrase, “Well, this is how we did it at (fill in the blank).” This will almost always come across as patronizing and even insulting despite your best intentions.
  2. Your board is your greatest asset. They offer the history and the back-story that you lack. Engage them often: this is not only important to accelerate your knowledge of the institution’s history but board members want to feel appreciated.
  3. Former board members, particularly past presidents, are no less valuable to your learning curve. They want to be on your radar screen, even if less frequently.
  4. The first 90 days will be akin to drinking water from a fire hose, but try to spend as much time as possible listening to your constituents around campus. You will not only expand your knowledge base but will be perceived as someone that takes his/her position as a team player seriously. You will eventually need them to support your new initiatives.
  5. Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is showing up.” So make yourself visible, particularly to your external constituents – alumni chapter leaders, volunteers, advocates and student groups. The last thing you want a chapter leader or the student body president to say is, “they’ve been on the job for a year, yet we haven’t met.”

Finally, this goes without saying: Learn the songs. Lead the cheers. Wear the colors. As chief alumni officer, you embody the brand of the institution.