The Importance of an Alumni Board

University of Alabama

It’s for good reason that the topic of alumni board management receives considerable discussion whenever alumni directors get together. An alumni board is not just a passive group of well-intentioned graduates that convenes on campus several times a year and who wait for direction from the chief alumni officer; rather, it is a critical asset that contributes mightily to the success of the alumni organization, one that must be cultivated and managed as a key institutional resource.

Now, I’m the first to acknowledge that Board management is not easy even under the best of circumstances. Chief alumni officers are regularly confronted with a multitude of personalities at the board level, some not always on the same page and with varying opinions on how the alumni office should be “governed.”

And while national searches are regularly conducted for open chief alumni officer positions, some board members remain uneasy as to the prospect of a graduate from another institution being hired to run “their” alumni association (this alone can result in unresolved conflicts and lack of trust). As I mentioned in a previous article, alumni directors from other universities have the unenviable task of being brought in to essentially run a family business without being a member of the family.

This protective nature of some board members aside, the benefits of a high-performing alumni board are incontrovertible.

The alumni board, collectively and individually, represents a critical feedback loop to the alumni staff and leadership. They offer wisdom, advocacy and a strong sense of history and tradition, as well as governance responsibilities and committee work. Dan Heinlen, President Emeritus of the Ohio State Alumni Association, regularly counseled that much of the work of the alumni organization is done at the board committee level.

An increasing number of alumni organizations are either developing or refining strategic plans for alumni engagement. The alumni board plays an important role here: to ensure that the core tenets of the strategic plan are being fulfilled and to hold the alumni organization accountable for programs, timelines and performance. Alumni board oversight is important, not tangential, to any strategic planning process.

On occasion, I have seen alumni Boards operate from the basis of “overreach.” That is, they are often deeply (and inappropriately) involved in staff issues and programming. “We direct the staff, and they execute on our decisions,” an alumni Board chairman told me recently. Ruh-Roh. You don’t want to be that alumni director.

More often, however, alumni Boards are kept at arm’s length by the chief alumni officer. This leaves members uncertain as to their role; standing committees that don’t function; and little if any interaction regarding the strategic plan process. In other words, the many benefits of a staff-board partnership are otherwise unfulfilled.

Both scenarios are unproductive – and unhealthy. In the best case, a fully-functioning alumni board might look something like this:

  • Size: A group comprised of 18-24 members is a highly desirable and manageable number. Boards that include as many as 40 to 60 members may be deliberately “representative” of all regional chapters, colleges and constituency groups but present challenges as to effectiveness and decision-making. Alumni boards need to be efficient and nimble.
  • Diversity: The makeup of the board should reflect the alumni body insofar as diversity of gender, ethnicity, geography and academic affiliation. There is also a certain functionality to recruiting board members who bring important skills to the enterprise, such as a background in law, nonprofit management, strategic planning or marketing communications.
  • Composition: A board position should never be considered a resume-builder. Further, there should be a balance between members who are leaders in their community (and whose sheer involvement will elevate the stature of the alumni board), and those who can roll up their sleeves and contribute within their standing committees. These well-known and highly active board members are often in the pipeline for a university Trustee position.
  • Committee Structure: There are usually two types of standing committees: internal and external (programming). The internal committees are usually the responsibility of the Board itself: Governance & Nominations, Strategic Planning and occasionally Alumni Awards or things of that nature. The external, or “programming,” committees usually take their cue from the staff liaisons and the strategic plan. If the plan outlines strategic priorities for Regional Outreach, Communications, Lifelong Learning and Student & Young Alumni Engagement, then there ought to be standing committees that support these initiatives.
  • Member Expectations: More than just the requirement of attending a set number of meetings during the board term, members must also abide by a set of expectations, either tacitly or in writing, that include a financial commitment, keeping up to date with institutional news, contributing to the pipeline of prospective members, identifying potential donors and being an advocate for the institution.
  • A Culture of Partnership: An effective board should not “direct” the staff, but rather advises them on matters that affect fulfillment of the strategic plan. Staff committee liaisons and their board counterparts should work closely to draft committee agendas and to function as a team. The professional knowledge provided by staff coupled with the advisory capabilities of the board make for an effective combination. One of my former committee chairs was a Vice Admiral; while he may have known little about alumni engagement strategies, he contributed immeasurably in terms of his emphasis of timelines, teamwork and building toward the big picture.
  • Constant Communications: The chief alumni officer should communicate personally with the board president and other members on a frequent basis. This is a relational business, and a key to board management is making members feel valued and part of the conversation. In addition, regular board communication generated by the staff that includes dashboards and progress toward strategic goals is another important aspect of keeping board members looped into the organization’s priorities.
  • Meetings: Members need not feel overburdened with board work. Full board meetings limited to two to three occasions a year with an additional layer of standing committee meetings (five to six times a year) is a reasonable meeting schedule. The prospect of managing a more frequent board meeting calendar each year also places an undue burden on the staff.
  • Emeritus Members: What do to with board members who have served their terms with distinction and is now time to move on? Do you “plaque ‘em and whack ‘em,” as my Seton Hall colleague Matt Borowick likes to joke? Hardly. Find a place for these ultra-engaged alumni to continue to stay engaged—whether it’s a special annual meeting or assisting the chief alumni officer in fundraising initiatives. Keep them close: the contributions of this special group of alumni should not be cast aside simply because they’ve termed out.

As a chief alumni officer, I have felt that the board was my most important asset. But good board relations are never assumed; they must be cared for and cultivated leading to effective, productive and long-lasting relationships.