Good practices of alumni relations professionals leading engagement programs and volunteers in colleges of agriculture at land-grant institutions

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Virginia Tech

With each new cohort of directors entering the field of alumni relations in agriculture, a pattern emerges. They often are not adequately prepared to assume the responsibilities of the position. There is a perception that attention to detail and event planning skills are sufficient qualifications to manage an alumni volunteer program successfully. Managing the people and activities involved with the programs in the ever-growing field of alumni relations requires much more than event planning know-how. Implementing impactful alumni engagement programs requires knowledge of leading and managing programs, budgets, and people, specifically volunteers. Alumni engagement involves extensive communication skills and, depending on the institution, knowledge of board organization procedures.

As we all strive to advance agriculture, we must put in place qualified individuals to engage our alumni and stakeholders, specifically volunteers. Are there programs in place to provide training for the candidates selected? Are resources readily available that provide good practices for these individuals to follow as they build their alumni volunteer programs?

Although there is a demand for more rigorous and sophisticated professional practice, there continues to be a gap between research and practice in the field of volunteer administration (Seel, 2013). Resources available for volunteer managers are often how-to manuals with practical suggestions and approaches (Fisher and Cole, 1993). Associations such as the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association (NAADA), and BoardSource® provide opportunities for networking with colleagues through conferences and online resources. Still, these are often costly and fragmented with regard to the presentation of content.

The purpose of the study was to examine how alumni relations professionals are prepared to carry out their roles and responsibilities as administrators of alumni engagement programs and volunteers in colleges of agriculture at land-grant institutions. The study sought to describe good practices for support, training, communication, and volunteer management that can be utilized by new members of the field and seasoned veterans alike. Thirteen current alumni relations professionals in agriculture at land-grant institutions who are members of NAADA were interviewed. Job descriptions were reviewed prior to each interview. Interviews were transcribed by TranscribeMe, Inc., analyzed using a form of whole text analysis with open coding. Common codes were merged to develop the themes.

Research Questions

  1. How do alumni directors administer alumni engagement programs and associated volunteers?
  2. What skills should alumni directors bring to their positions upon employment?
  3. How do alumni directors identify individuals or groups to connect to in order to accomplish their goals?
  4. How do alumni directors identify and implement communications strategies to make successful connections to use with individuals and/or groups?
  5. How do alumni directors continue to improve their skills and knowledge to meet their job expectations related to administering alumni engagement programs and associated volunteers?

Through a thematic analysis of the data, the following themes emerged: management of volunteer boards; management of general volunteers; perceptions of alumni directors; engagement with alumni, faculty, and students through events and programs; partnerships with university-level advancement and college leadership; communications tools; and professional development.

Overall, the findings were not surprising other than lack of knowledge of volunteer management models or prior experience in volunteer management. Participants who had the support of leadership, who arrived to their positions with at least some background working with volunteers, and those who were willing to try new tactics to engage volunteers set an outstanding example of how success is possible in the role of an alumni director. Communications is a powerful tool for all alumni directors but can also be a significant challenge. Participants who expanded their definition of "volunteer" beyond alumni to include faculty, staff, and students appeared to have better-developed strategies to engage, empower, and lead individuals. Participants who partnered with colleagues in academic programs were better positioned to engage students in programming, find student volunteers and interns to assist in their efforts, and create and maintain stronger connections as they become young alumni.

Seven key good practices can be elevated from the data:

  1. Familiarize with volunteer management models to understand how and why people are motivated to volunteer and develop skillsets and tactics to recruit, train, retain, and recognize volunteers
  2. Empower volunteers to develop their own mission and goals, strategize their plan of work, and lead the execution of their programs and organization
  3. Expand the definition of "volunteer"
  4. Build collaborative partnerships across the team, college and university
  5. Develop innovative approaches and partnerships to engage students
  6. Expand professional development resources
  7. Advocate for yourself and your program

After interviewing thirteen alumni relations professionals, it was clear that those land-grant institutions have passionate, volunteer-centric professionals who diligently work every day towards the mission and goals of the colleges they serve. But there is much work to be done to create an environment that is more supportive of them. Efforts should be made to help college and university leadership better understand the qualifications required for alumni relations positions, elevate alumni engagement and volunteers' impact, and provide more targeted professional development opportunities.

volunteer, alumni, land-grant, agriculture, advancement, alumni relations, alumni engagement