When A Crisis Hits: Engaging & Inspiring Alumni Virtually

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Corporate alumni programs can play a positive role for their sponsoring companies during Covid-19. Get insight from two corporate alumni managers about how to engage alumni virtually and inspire them to action.

“Community is everything. Together as a community we can overcome anything during this crisis.” – Stephan Herrlich, co-founder of PeoplePath

As the COVID-19 pandemic crisis continues to develop, organizations seek ways to protect employees, support their communities and adjust to the new realities of the marketplace.

PeoplePath asked two alumni managers to share examples and inspiration for how alumni programs can have a positive impact during the crisis. The question we posed is, “how can we engage alumni virtually and inspire them to action?”

Dr. Christian Mencke, Director SAP Alumni Relations for SAP SE and Andrea Voytko, Director Alumni Program & Manager of Talent Development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently shared their insights in a webinar (watch webinar here).

Dr. Christian Mencke, Director SAP Alumni Relations for SAP SE
Christian offers a framework for managing a network in a crisis to be clear about the objectives that we want to achieve with alumni relations. He encourages us to look for a grain of opportunity in the situation, but also recognize that everyone is experiencing a lot of emotions as the news about COVID-19 escalates.

Let’s avoid actionism
Consider carefully what your goals are during this time for the management of the alumni network. How can we work efficiently with the tools we have during this extraordinary situation?

Is another email with tips about how to work from home what your members need right now? It’s tempting to take action. But it’s more useful to invest some time and ask what value you can provide right now and what is the most effective way to provide it.

The job of alumni managers right now is to focus less on what we want to do for the network and instead find out what your members want and move together forward as a team. The goal is centered around moving social relationship patterns into the virtual space while making them as vibrant and active as ever.

Consider what assets work best now
Alumni managers have a number of tools that we tap to engage with network members. At SAP, the following “Prio 1 assets” have quickly emerged as ways to provide the most value to our alumni during the crisis.

1. Newsflash – Separate from our newsletter, the Newsflash is sent whenever something happens at the company that is significant that we want alumni to learn about first from the company first. Alumni get the same access to information as employees, and it helps them feel connected. People working from home are isolated yet swamped with information. This format helps identify the news as meaningful. We find the Newsflash a valuable method to help alumni feel socially embedded at SAP.

2. Job board – Emphasize contractual openings right now as companies seek to hire resources without committing to long-term positions while they evaluate the impact COVID-19.

3. Virtual events – Rethink how to run alumni management and events by implementing more virtual set-ups. Take advantage of work done in other departments to establish virtual assets and ways to host events.

4. Sub-groups – Create subgroups based on geography, subject areas and career status (retirees, employed, etc.), so alumni can find safe havens where they feel more at home in addition to their connection to the larger group. It’s a way to provide information that is relevant to them, increase their level of trust in the network and make it more inviting for new members to join. Key to the success is of sub-groups it that they are:

  • Authentic – Interactions in the group need to be tailored to the interests of the members.
  • Demand-driven – Let members drive the need for the sub-group. For example, an SAP alumni asked for a sub-group for the human resources community to discuss COVID-19 topics and share ideas on how to deal with the crisis.
  • Self-organized – Let the sub-group determine how it is run and how they want to tap into the power of the larger network.

5. Be open to what your members want and adapt quickly as needed. What tools are at your disposal that might be useful in the near term?

In general, listen to your network. Network management is built upon dialogue and your members have great ideas. This crisis is a chance to move away from our usual perspective and strengthen the corporate alumni networks for the long term.

Andrea Voytko, Director Alumni Program & Manager of Talent Development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Andrea shares Christian’s advice about the importance of listening to alumni. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation received a few requests from alumni network members for insights on how the organization is handling the COVID-19 situation. The foundation decided to be fully transparent publicly about how it is managing pandemic issues with their employees.

Recognizing that email inboxes are overflowing with COVID-19-related messages, the foundation only sends communications to alumni who have opted-in. Andrea also makes sure all regular communications are consistent with the messages they send about the pandemic.

Engagement levels from alumni are high. Many people have emotional connections to the alumni network. Quite a few members are global health specialists who want to know how they can help. Andrea is working with an internal team at the foundation to find places where people can volunteer and offer their infectious disease expertise.

Building bridges
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrea is working on ways for alumni to help members connect with each other to find ways to be of service. Now, more than ever, is the time to build bridges between alumni.

The foundation has no in-person alumni events planned until at least July, with a watchful eye on changing conditions. Instead, they are focused on how to utilize small groups and chats for information sharing. Andrea recommends looking for practical ways to be opportunistic about foster alumni relationships.

She’s looking for ways to connect alumni more quickly based on geography or topic, such as e-learning. How can the foundation be more inclusive of people who are not physically close to other alumni so they can add their contributions?

One immediate need is to help people who are changing careers, either by choice or because of job losses due to the virus. There’s a great opportunity to connect alumni who are further along in their careers with alumni who have less experience.

The new normal
In this unprecedented time, alumni managers can keep network members engaged by listening, learning and adapting. When we eventually emerge from the clutches of the virus, what we discover now will be beneficial for how we engage talent the life. The communities we build now will continue to serve us well in the future.

The PeoplePath webinar: When A Crisis Hits: Engaging & Inspiring Alumni Virtually is available here.

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