October 06, 2005

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Good reasons for maintaining contact with alumni

To characterize our desire to keep in touch with our grads as a single-minded quest for funds is to grossly underestimate their value to the university.

As director of alumni relations, people frequently assume that my role of keeping in touch with our graduates is directed toward the end goal of asking them for money. In fact, there are many very good reasons for maintaining contact with our alumni. But since this is the most commonly held stereotype, let's talk about it first.

Yes, it's true. We do ask our alumni for funds. Twice a year, a marvelous team of well trained, articulate students call our graduates to ask them for donations that are vital to the university's ability to provide scholarships, bursaries and library resources. It's also an opportunity for relationship building, as the callers do a great job of keeping alumni informed about what's going on at the university and what's new in terms of benefits, services and events.

In a constantly changing world, the one thing that we can all count on is that students will always need money. By speaking with our callers, it is our hope that alumni will remember their own student days and will recognize the advantages that they have subsequently gained by earning a post-secondary education. We are deeply grateful when they feel the responsibility to give back - to the university in general and to students in particular.

However, to characterize our desire to keep in touch with our grads as a single-minded quest for funds is to grossly underestimate their value to the university.

The cognitive skills, knowledge, personal growth and social networks that students gain at university are some of the most powerful predictors of a successful future - in whatever terms you may define success. Simon Fraser University strives to create an atmosphere that provides these tools, thus empowering our alumni to make their finest personal contribution as educated citizens.

It behooves all of us to pay close attention to their subsequent accomplishments, because they provide an ongoing measurement of our success as an educational institution. Furthermore, when our graduates are able to articulate what they gained by attending SFU and how it affected their lives, they provide an invaluable service in terms of recruiting bright new minds to the university.

It is also important that we keep in touch with our alumni so they are aware that Simon Fraser University continues to be a dynamic presence in the world of education. They need to know that we are constantly in the process of refining and improving our programs, embarking on exciting and relevant research, and increasing capacity through our many building projects.

We want them to share our pride in the incredible students, faculty, staff and fellow alumni of SFU. After all, the accomplishments of the university reflect well upon them as graduates and protect the value of the credentials they have worked so diligently to gain.
Having provided them with the tools for lifelong learning, we need to recognize the enormous value of ever-expanding alumni knowledge and alumni networks. Our alumni throughout the world provide a web of relationships from which we can truly benefit. They are some of our best prospects for providing honest feedback that can help the university make key decisions for the future. They also have the capability, individually or en masse, to advocate on behalf of the university.

Of course, all of these results can only occur if we are connected with our grads. From a survey that we conducted about five years ago, we learned while our alumni were very fond of SFU and proud of the education that they received, they did not feel any particular reason to stay connected with the university.

Some also expressed the sentiment that we only got in touch with them when we wanted their money. Ouch.

We have really taken that feedback to heart and have directed our energies over the past years to improving our connections with our alumni. Having ascertained that a huge percentage of our alumni are computer literate, we started the Alumni Update, our electronic newsletter, which, I am proud to say, now goes out to 30,000 of our graduates (almost 50 per cent of our contactable alumni) at least 11 times a year. Alongside the e-newsletter, we have spent considerable time and energy updating our website which we now employ regularly as a dynamic communication tool.

It seems logical that if we want our alumni to stay in touch with us, we need to continue to have relevance in their lives. Simon Fraser University should not be relegated to a fond memory from their youth, but should continue to play a role in their lives today. That was the thinking behind the SFU Alumni Association's extraordinary gift to the university of $550,000 for the re-furbishment of the Diamond University Centre (DUC). In recognition of that gift, the university generously offered to change the name of the DUC to the Diamond Alumni Centre. Alumni now have the privilege of booking the Diamond Alumni Centre at internal rates, a significant new benefit. Whether it's a wedding, a birthday, or a retirement party, we want our alumni to celebrate their life events at the centre at Simon Fraser University. When they remember their special day, they will also remember SFU.

We are very pleased to be moving our offices into the Diamond Alumni Centre, which will make it much easier for alumni to find us when they come back to campus. We hope they will take the opportunity to stop in and visit when their life events or business bring them back to the Burnaby campus. It always rejuvenates the alumni staff when we have direct contact with our grads.

The 40th anniversary year is a marvelous opportunity for all of us to connect with our alumni. Our 40th anniversary celebration on Oct. 1 was specifically designed with SFU alumni in mind. Because of the structure of SFU with its three semesters, its many different alternatives for program delivery, its opportunities for international exchanges and co-op education semesters, we do not (generally) have a class of ‘85 per se. We don't have a tradition of a homecoming queen, or the possibility of tailgate parties at the stadium. Those traditions are not ours. They don't resonate with our fabulously unique alumni.

Therefore, we planned the day by always asking ourselves the question: What would our alumni find interesting and relevant? The result was a totally non-traditional day of celebration centred on convocation mall, right in the collective heart of the alumni experience.

Although it is early in our 40th anniversary year, we have already heard some extremely touching testimonials from our graduates. Many of them remember their time at SFU with genuine fondness and humour, made all the better by the irony of perspective that only time can provide. We look forward to meeting them, to creating some new memories, and to convincing them that we are interested in them far beyond their bank accounts.

Janis Horne is an SFU alumna (BGS 86, MALS 96), director, alumni relations and executive director, SFU Alumni Association.

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