At the end of 2016, we engaged two colleagues, Isaac Thweatt and Betsy Jackman, to speak with us about two seemingly disparate subjects: engaging alumni, and coaching advancement staff. The juxtaposition of the two conversations revealed something a little unexpected: the two pursuits are more closely related than one might think. Whether creatively engaging alumni to ensure a lasting bond with their institution or coaching staff to achieve their higher potential, both are forms of managing human talent.
As director of alumni outreach at American University (Washington, DC), Isaac is charged with developing and implementing more than 300 events and unique alumni touch points that promote engagement with, and support of, the university. In an era when alumni relations professionals are challenged to work more closely with major gift and regional giving officers, the question must first be asked: "What is meant by 'meaningful engagement,' and how is it measured?"
Isaac explains that at American, meaningful engagement is inclusive of volunteerism, programming and events, communications and social media, reputation-building activities, and institutional giving. Using a mix of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods, the alumni relations team is better able to partner with gift officers for moves management needs.
He points to the university's distinguished alumni speaker series as a program example designed to meaningfully engage alumni. Isaac explains that the recruitment of both students and alumni to the program is intentional, and the events are carefully planned to deliver a highly rewarding experience for all who participate. "I know that we have helped to move along at least seven major gifts in the past four years because of their participation in this and similarly designed programs," Isaac states.
Investing in alumni today has transformed the way Alumni Relations engages with alumni. “Long gone are the days when the class secretary picked up the phone and called members of the graduating class,” we learn from Isaac. Today, due diligence requires extensive research. Alumni Relations needs to be versed in a prospect’s profession, involvement in their community, their connection to the institution, and of course, establishing personal contact.
With more than 25 years experience in talent management, coaching, and advertising, and now Executive Director, Talent Management, for the University of Michigan’s Office of University Development, Betsy cites the International Coach Federation’s definition of coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the ‘coachee’ to maximize personal and professional potential.”
Calling it a “holistic approach” to self-improvement, Betsy focuses on the individual, looking for ways to help an employee thrive and optimally contribute to the organization overall. This requires addressing individual strengths, interests, challenges and goals, and developing a sense of who each person is. From an institutional perspective, hiring a coach is an investment in human talent.
Yet while focusing on the individual, coaching is also about building highly effective teams. By knowing each of the individuals within the team, it is possible to better align responsibilities, balance strengths and shortcomings, and thus set the whole team up for success.
Coaching offers staff members the opportunity to talk about their experiences in a particular role, whether the person and the job are a good match and if not, what might be getting in the way of their personal success. And when, as sometimes occurs, an individual’s attributes and skill set isn’t in alignment, coaching can help uncover what might better suit the individual, the team, and the institution.
At this point in both conversations, we began to realize the parallels between engaging alumni and coaching professionals. In both cases, thoughtful and thorough research, creative engagement, matching individual interests and expectations with the needs of the institution, finding the right fit and helping people find fulfillment in their roles are the ingredients for long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.
Betsy views coaching from the standpoint of the “employee life cycle.” For example, when a new staff member feels overwhelmed, a coach can step in to provide support and guidance, acclimate them to the organization, and help set them on a path to success. Similarly, newly engaged alumni benefit from a similar strategy: engage one-on-one, talk openly about their objectives, interests, availability, potential, and what is important to them in terms of impact, and thereby build a pathway to a successful, rewarding experience as a donor.
When asked about pre-graduate outreach, the life cycle concept re-emerges. Isaac explains that it is critical to think about students as future alumni and nurturing the concept of giving back from the moment of admission until they graduate. "Once an Eagle, always an Eagle" is an unofficial community motto at American University, taught to students during their summer orientations and iterated throughout their time through their final graduation activities. This mindset helps establish that even as undergraduates, they are already a part of the alumni family.
We wanted to know more about strategies for engaging younger alumni vs. people who graduated 20 or 30 years ago. Isaac explains that while we tend to associate social media with younger alumni, the fastest growing cohort of Facebook users are baby boomers. Younger alumni are typically using Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. So staying very much abreast of what the latest trend is from a communication perspective is critical for alumni relations teams, he states. However, young alumni are interested in many of the same topics and news items as older alumni, so the traditional forms of communications, the alumni magazine for example, are still relevant.
Adaptation to donor preferences manifests in other ways as well. The trend toward de-emphasizing the financial aspect of the donor role creates opportunities to engage donors and prospects in different ways. Many alumni want to know what they can do beyond writing a check, so at American, they are steered to volunteering. Encouraging the concepts of "being present and visible," mentoring and coaching students, and participating in career outreach efforts that lead to hiring - all of these are meaningful ways to play a part in the student's life and the institution's success.
Adaptation exists in the world of coaching as well. In cases where, after efforts to coach an individual in a given role doesn’t succeed, it might be necessary to re-assign a person to a different role. Putting a person’s strengths, interests and skills to work in another area other than the role they were hired for makes good sense for the individual and the institution.
Retaining talent is key to long-term success for the institution as well. Coaches can play a significant part in this when managers are really too busy to get to know each staff member’s career aspirations and long-term professional goals. Understanding aspirations leads to providing individuals with opportunities to stay fully engaged and fulfilled. It is a two-way street though, Betsy cautions. It’s up to the individual to take responsibility for his or her own fulfillment as well.
Briefly summarizing the benefits of hiring a coach, Betsy cites “putting a positive spin on what ever is going on in your world; understanding that ‘we’ can be proactive and find positive solutions to something that has been challenging.” A coach is a sounding board, someone to brainstorm with. She explains that we tend to be our own worst critics, so coaching offers the opportunity to help think about who you want to be on the job, and get positive self-talk going as opposed to that inner critic. Coaching can be instrumental in guiding people to being their own best self, living their best life right now. “You know,” she continues, “if you’re going to invest in anything start with yourself, because that’s going to then have a great impact on the outside world as well.”
And then, coincidentally, Betsy points out that, “There’s a great parallel, I think, to coaching and the work of alumni staff who’s job as a fundraiser is to find donors’ passions and then match it with those great opportunities that really resonate with them, so that they can have that sense of great purpose in their legacy, right?”
Whether coaching staff to be their best selves, or guiding alumni and donors to identifying a role that results in a fulfilling, long-standing affiliation with their alma mater, it’s all about managing “human talent.”
Isaac earned a bachelor of music in performance (voice) from George Mason University (Mason) and a master of science in management (leadership) from The Catholic University of America. Professionally, he serves American University as the director of alumni outreach in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. In this role, he manages the creation, development and implementation of 200 events and 250 additional unique touchpoints designed to increase and promote alumni engagement with, and, in support of AU.
Prior to American University, Thweatt served as associate director of development at Mason’s School of Business and adjunct faculty with Mason’s University Studies Department / Freshmen Center. For more than 10 years, Thweatt has been a Brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated and active volunteer with the Miss America Organization. He maintains close connections to his professional community as a strategist, presenter, and social media volunteer for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. He is partnered to Derrick T. Smith, an alumnus of Dartmouth College and development professional at the University of Pennsylvania.
Betsy is an accomplished leader with more than 25 years experience in talent management, coaching, and advertising. She is Executive Director, Talent Management, for the University of Michigan’s Office of University Development. She has also been a talent management consultant/coach in the higher education fundraising arena, and worked in development at Northwestern University and The University of Illinois at Chicago.
Betsy is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) and has been coaching for over 15 years. She is passionate about helping individuals thrive in their life’s work and incorporates coaching as a springboard for growth, change and renewal.