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The unexpected benefits of doing alumni affairs events online

Pivoting online has forced alumni relations teams to get creative – and resulted in greater turnout for events than they expected.


The global pandemic forced university alumni relations and engagement teams to postpone and cancel events, and challenged them to figure out how to produce events online. But the past year also had an unexpected silver lining for these teams: by going virtual, they’ve been able to increase the scope of their outreach.

Before the pandemic hit, Karen McQuigge spent a lot of her job in a plane or on the road. As the director of alumni advancement at McMaster University, she regularly travelled to support international recruitment and within Canada to visit and hold events with alumni, sometimes with the university’s president. “The move to virtual has certainly expanded the participation by the university’s alumni program because it comes to their home [and alumni] can pick and choose what they want to do,” Ms. McQuigge says. She’s noticed that going virtual over the past year has allowed older alumni, particularly the graduates that are in their 80s, to attend events at night. “They would never come out late,” she explains. “They wouldn’t drive…[or] come out to an event at night. But they’re participating from their homes.”

In February, Ms. McQuigge moderated an online event with Lawrence Martin, a McMaster graduate and columnist for the Globe and Mail. “I had a team member in another part of Hamilton, someone in Mississauga and someone in Burlington … we were all [working] from our homes delivering a program for close to 500 alumni from all over the world,” she says. “If we were to do that same event … in Ottawa, where [Mr. Martin] lives… we wouldn’t have gotten 500 people out in a physical place on a cold February night.”

Shanna Hopkins, director of alumni affairs at St. Francis Xavier University, has had a similar experience after pivoting her work online. “There are a lot of benefits to the virtual world, because there are some people that aren’t able to come to the events that we usually do have. Whether it is family constraints or locations, dates, times, there are lots of [reasons]. But we’re finding that we’re getting more attendance.”

Ms. Hopkins had initially worried that alumni wouldn’t attend virtual events — especially the older cohorts. Last year, the university held a virtual homecoming for the class of 1970, and Ms. Hopkins says alumni were hesitant to participate. “We weren’t sure how that would go with the technology. … They said, ‘You know, we’re not 15, 16 years old. We’re 70-year-old people trying to navigate Zoom,’” she explains. But the event went smoothly, she adds, and gave her and her alumni affairs colleagues some confidence that they could pull off other online initiatives too.

One of these initiatives is X-Connects, a podcast series featuring students interviewing alumni — which Ms. Hopkins says has engaged both graduates and current students, before they become alumni. Ahead of the podcast launch, the students involved worked with a retired local CTV News anchor, Nancy Regan, to learn how to conduct interviews and prepare for the series. And later, in an online alumni event where Ms. Regan interviewed St. FX’s president Andrew Hakin, the former newswoman introduced the X-Connects students and asked them questions about the upcoming series. “It was about 400 alumni that were signed up for that Zoom meeting, and the minute it was over my inbox got flooded [with attendees saying], ‘This was amazing. Thank you very much,’” Ms. Hopkins says. “This was a Thursday night, August, eight o’clock, 30 degrees out” and hundreds still attended.

Jenna McCann, manager of business development for alumni UBC, works with her small team to generate revenue for the University of British Columbia’s alumni association and promote benefits and perks for members. She wasn’t in the event planning business, but when working from home, she became interested in how she could support the development of virtual content to engage alumni — and ended up planning and supporting online initiatives that won alumni UBC awards. And it all started with a baking challenge.

“That was when we were all baking bread at home. And so I thought, ‘Hey, let’s tackle some of the UBC recipes,’” Ms. McCann says. “The UBC is actually really well known with our alumni for our bake shop. We have some amazing baked goods, so you’re guaranteed to gain at least 10 to 15 pounds in your first year, whether you’re staff or student.” Using classic recipes from campus – and her Android phone duct taped to a borrowed tripod – Ms. McCann started the challenge by making cinnamon buns. The initiative, which lasted 10 weeks, was a lighthearted, fun way to engage alumni at home, she says.

Ms. McCann was also a big part of the success of alumni UBC’s Summer Series, which picked up a regional gold Council for Advancement and Support of Education award in a new online pivot category. “We realized early on … that there was a need [for virtual content], particularly for families who were staring down a long summer with kids at home and trying to balance working and caregiving,” she says. “I knew that UBC and alumni UBC had the resources to provide engaging activities and content. We just had to share the wealth with our alumni in the community, so I set to work to curate a four-week calendar, highlighting recreational programs, educational opportunities, health and wellness activities.” Many of the activities and programs had already been planned or created, they just hadn’t been pulled together into one spot. “So that’s what we did [with the UBC Summer Series landing page],” Ms. McCann adds, “because we wanted to bring a bit of joy back to summer.”

Of all the benefits of engaging alumni online, a virtual event can’t truly replace the experience of seeing your former classmates again, in-person. “There are some things that don’t necessarily translate to virtual … the one I think that struggles is a reunion,” says McMaster’s Ms. McQuigge. “We delivered [a reunion online in the spring] but it just doesn’t have the same sort of feeling that you would have bringing back the 15th anniversary class to campus.” Ms. Hopkins, from St. FX, agrees. She says her team will likely take a hybrid approach to events post-COVID, with some events online and some taking place in-person.

It’s an approach that alumni UBC and UBC in general are discussing, says Ms. McCann. “I think this has been a great exercise in seeing what we’re capable of, in a remote world,” she adds. “In the past, we thought it couldn’t be possible for an entire workforce to be sent home to work and be able to continue to be collaborative, and creative, and engage our alumni at the levels that we’ve been able to engage them. I’m hoping we’ll be able to take those learnings and put them forward into planning for future years.”

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