The UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. has been in business since 1871. Its informal mission — to engage alums and begin (and continue) a dialogue concerning the importance of giving back to the institution, hasn’t changed over the past 147 years. But like the university itself, the alumni association has been expanding, elevating its game, and developing new strategies for inspiring graduates to invest in their alma mater.
JC Schnabl’s office in Memorial Hall is decorated with something approaching a nautical theme. There are several large framed paintings of sailing ships, including the U.S.S. Constitution.
When asked about it, with the expectation of an acknowledged personal fondness for ships, sailing, or both, Schnabl, assistant vice chancellor of Alumni Relations and executive director of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc., said there was some of that. But there was much more to these choices for his walls, he admitted.
Indeed, he was looking for something that said ‘Massachusetts’ or ‘New England’ — sort of … maybe. But he was also looking for something that didn’t just say ‘Massachusetts’ or ‘New England,’ and would appeal to a broader audience.
“I didn’t want to put something up that was Boston-specific,” he explained. “Old Ironsides is kind of a national emblem, and it’s broadly applicable to our alumni audience.”
And in many ways, his job, and his office’s mission, is much the same. There is a local focus to it, obviously, because there are so many graduates of the university living and working in Massachusetts, with the largest concentration (nearly half the total) being inside the Route 128 beltway around Boston. But the reach, and the message, has to be broader, because there are alums — 265,000 of them, according to the latest count — in every state and dozens of countries.
And that message is, in a word, ‘engagement’ with UMass Amherst, with engagement being an immensely broad term that is generally synonymous with ‘involvement,’ which can obviously come in many forms and flavors, said Schnabl.
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Financial support is perhaps the most obvious and important. It is the elephant in the room and the key to almost every one of the university’s ongoing efforts to climb higher in the rankings of the nation’s top institutions, he noted, adding that there is a significant, and in many ways needed, blurring of the lines when it comes to the work done by alumni-relations offices and development offices, as we’ll see later.
But engagement — and involvement — come in many other forms as well, said Schnabl, from support of athletic teams to mentoring of students, soon-to-be-graduates, and alums; from networking to efforts of all kinds to help build the university’s brand.
“We’re the mechanism that the university employs to engage alumni — and students who are going to become alumni —in the future of the university,” said Schnabl, summing up the overarching mission of his office. “In an environment where universities across the country are trying to turn their alumni associations into a broad fund-raising arm of the university, our chancellor has a belief that our strategy of engagement is equally important.
“We don’t want a scenario where the first time someone hears from the university, we’re asking for money,” he went on, adding, again, that money is vital to the school’s success. “Frequently, it’s ‘how can we help? How can we help with your career goals? How can we reconnect you with the university, a place where you spent four or five years and absolutely loved? How do we engage you with alumni who are doing things you like to do?’”
Put simply, the alumni office wants graduates to become involved in what he called a ‘lifelong relationship’ with the university, and certainly not one that ends when the diploma is received at that huge ceremony in the football stadium.
Schnabl, who came to the university from a similar post at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), said he considered a number of potential landing spots as he commenced a search for jobs on the East Coast in early 2012 to be closer to his daughter as she attended school in North Carolina.
In UMass Amherst, he said, he saw a school on the rise, one that was building new facilities and building momentum at the same time. And he decided he wanted to be part of that.
And since arriving, and partly through his own lobbying efforts, UMass has elevated its game in the broad and ‘quirky’ (Schnabl’s word) world of alumni relations. Indeed, since his arrival, the alumni office has swelled from 16 full-time employees to 25, and has become more aggressive in its efforts to get alums involved in their alma mater.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Schnabl about this quirky business of alumni relations and how the university is committing more resources, and more attention, to the work of engaging its graduates.
School of Thought
There’s a large, framed map on a wall just outside a suite of offices in Memorial Hall. It details just where the university’s alums reside these days, and it’s colored, with dark red identifying the most heavily populated areas, white indicating the least populated regions, and progressively darker shades of pink showing those in between.
As might be expected, the Northeast, and especially Massachusetts, is dark red, as is much of Florida and some pockets of Arizona, the Carolinas, and California — the popular retirement spots, but also, in the case of the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley, where many graduates are finding jobs. Meanwhile, also as expected, huge swaths of the Midwest and South are white. Not many residents of those states go to UMass, and not many graduates go there to live or work.
Such information is obviously valuable, said Schnabl, but knowing where the graduates are is just a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting alums involved or engaged.
Communicating with these individuals is a much bigger piece, as is sending a message that will inspire as much as it keeps the recipient informed.
Other pieces include events such as homecoming and reunions (there’s a large one on campus for each class marking its 50th anniversary, for example), as well as programs to get alums involved in their school, like a job-shadowing initiative in a few weeks that will involve several companies in the Bay State and beyond.
All this and more comes under the purview of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc., which operates, as most similar operations do, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency.
Around since 1871, nearly as long as the university, the association was created to engage graduates, said Schnabl, and, as he put it, “begin the dialogue concerning the importance giving back — of both their time and their money, and also being advocates for the university.”
That mission hasn’t changed in 147 years, but the manner in which it is carried out, at UMass and elsewhere, and the vehicles for doing so, including LinkedIn and Facebook, certainly have.
Schnabl has been in the alumni business, if you will, for more than 20 years now (after starting his professional career in law enforcement), and he’s seen a number of changes and emerging trends. Mostly, he’s seen forward-thinking colleges and universities become more serious about this business of alumni relations because of its importance to brand building and development.
So serious that schools, especially large public institutions, will now hire the best applicant they can find to lead such efforts, not the best applicant who is also an alum, as has been the case historically. Schnabl is an example — he did undergraduate work at the University of the Redlands just outside Los Angeles, and earned his MBA at the University of California at Irvine.
He stayed in California, and after working in law enforcement, “stumbled” into alumni relations, as he said most people working in this business do, by taking a job in that office at Long Beach State. He later took the lead job at Stanford.
As noted earlier, the UMass job was one of many he was considering when he decided he wanted to work close, but not too close, to his daughter. And it was one that intrigued him on a number of levels.
“UMass Amherst was poised for great things, and the alumni association was as well,” he said, adding that, when he interviewed for the position, he saw a school with considerable momentum and an alumni office with potential and an administration ready to make a bigger commitment to it.
As noted, there are several aspects to the work of all alumni offices, including the one at UMass, ranging from the writing, printing, and dissemination of magazines and newsletters to the staging of homecoming and other gatherings, to efforts to bring alumni from various academic programs, regions, and backgrounds together.
But at its core, the office’s primary focus now, more than ever, is to promote the value of philanthropy and thus increase constituent giving, and also to expand and promote available volunteer opportunities to broaden and diversify alumni support of the school’s students and its initiatives.
In other words, the office works to get people involved and — this is important — keep them involved, with involvement meaning writing checks to the university, but also much more.
When private universities graduate students, that’s not the first those students hear that it’s important to give back to the university. They hear it, starting not on the day they show up, but before they’re even thinking about going to that campus. They’re being indoctrinated into the notion that their support of the institution is going to be a lifelong commitment.”
It’s a process that needs to start early, and there must be constant reinforcement, said Schnabl, who talked about the need to instill what he called a “culture of philanthropy,” and notable progress with that assignment.
“When private universities graduate students, that’s not the first those students hear that it’s important to give back to the university,” he explained. “They hear it, starting not on the day they show up, but before they’re even thinking about going to that campus. They’re being indoctrinated into the notion that their support of the institution is going to be a lifelong commitment.
“Being a large public university that hadn’t really had that as part of our DNA, there was a lot of groundwork to lay,” he went on, adding that considerable work has been done in this regard. He started with a reference to the Commencement Ball.
As that name suggests, this is a gathering that takes place in the weeks leading up to commencement. Over the past several years, the event has seen explosive growth, from 700 attendees at the Student Union to more than 2,500 at a packed Mullins Center.
There is a fund-raising component to the ball, said Schnabl, noting that a portion of the ticket price is a donation to the university, hopefully the first of many.
“That makes them a donor to the university, which means we can communicate to those who participated and explain to them the importance of being a donor to the university,” he noted, “and how that money is going to help do everything from boost the rankings of the university to help other students come here and afford their time at UMass.”
There’s also the award-winning Multicolor Mile Run/Walk. This is an annual event at which participants — there’s a solid mix of students, alumni, faculty, and staff — traverse a one-mile loop through the campus while getting sprayed with liquid paint — hence the name. It’s fun event, but there’s a giving component here as well.
“They pay money to participate, and they take a ball that symbolizes their money and drop it in the bucket where they believe it should most effectively go in support of the institution,” he explained. “It usually winds up in the scholarship bucket.”
Yet, while working to stress the importance of philanthropy and giving back financially, the alumni association has also developed programs to engage graduates in other ways that build the brand.
One is the upcoming job-shadowing program, said Schnabl, adding that this is a new initiative designed to involve graduates in various fields with current students with an eye toward introducing them to potential job opportunities and giving them exposure to various business sectors.
“It’s an opportunity for a student to see what it’s like working for that industry in a way that being on campus doesn’t necessarily show them,” he explained, adding that it’s scheduled for January so that students can visit businesses near their homes while on winter break. “They get a day in the life at a particular business, but they also have exposure to an alum, to a professional field, and to a particular company so they can engage and potentially come through with jobs and internship possibilities.”
Several corporations, including Liberty Mutual, Target, Novartis, Genesis Health Care, the Pyramid Hotel Group, and others, are participating, he said, adding that more than 40 businesses, most of them in the Boston area, are hosting students.
Other initiatives include a mentoring program that also matches alums with current students, as well as affinity groups representing everything from various regions to the LGBT community. There’s also something called the Almuni Advisors Network, an online platform similar to LinkedIn.
“If a student or a young alum, or even an alum in transition, were looking to find out more about an industry or a career, they can tap into this wealth of information from people across the country and in a variety of different industries and set up an appointment to talk with them,” Schnabl explained. “They can take those career discussions and turn them into career opportunities.”
Meanwhile, volunteerism comes in many forms, from those in various industries advising the deans of specific schools to professionals advising individual students.
“Yes, their financial contributions are important, but their advocacy on behalf of the university is as important, if not moreso,” he noted, adding that alumni have been invaluable in communicating the importance of the university to economic development in the Bay State to the Legislature and the public at large.
When asked how to measure success in his business — a question that’s being asked by many in that sector and in college presidents’ offices as well — Schnabl said there are a number of yardsticks.
They include everything from the number of hits on websites and clicks on specific articles in the magazines to attendance at the Commencement Ball, to the number of companies taking part in the job-shadowing program. The most important, obviously, is the level of donations to the school in question.
Ultimately, though, the greatest measures of success involve what is done with the dollars that are donated — new facilities, new programs, new opportunities for students to attend the university, and an upward trajectory in those all-important rankings of universities and individual schools within them.
Thus, some results are not visible, or measurable, for years.
For now, though, Schnabl believes UMass Amherst is making great strides in this business of alumni relations, and with building those lifelong relationships between graduates and the university that lie at its core.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com