Each year, over 300 NCC alumni and their families enjoy a night at the ballpark as one of the alumni association’s annual events.

Alumni-Relations Programs Take a New Turn

By Sonya Stinson

At one college, a shift from fundraising to boosting engagement is expected to keep more former students involved.

Northampton Community College (NCC), in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has had an alumni-relations program in place since shortly after the college was founded, in 1967, says Sharon Beales, vice president for institutional advancement. For its nearly 50-year existence, the program has focused mainly on fundraising. Events such as the annual White House Dinner — which has featured guest speakers like the U.S. president’s former head chef the Alumni Hall of Fame ceremony and two successful craft fairs have helped support many of the college’s major development campaigns.

Last summer, NCC undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a decision to shift the focus of alumni relations from fundraising activities to boosting engagement. Now, its goals are connecting with current students to get them interested in becoming involved with the alumni program after they graduate; finding ways to keep young alumni engaged; and creating affinity groups to encourage networking.

“We did the strategic planning over the summer, and we started to talk about this being a beta year in September,” Beales says. “We’re going to test a number of programs to see what fits, to develop that strategic plan with annual programs throughout the year.”

NCC is part of a trend in which community colleges work harder to enhance their alumni-relations programs, according to a survey by the CASE Center for Community College Advancement. Almost half of community college respondents said they had increased the time spent on these programs over the past three years, and the same percentage of respondents said it had increased overall engagement by alumni during that time.

NCC Alumni Board members enjoyed a night of food and fun with former White House Chef John Moeller, as part of the association’s annual White House Dinner celebration.

Time for change in alumni programs

NCC administrators say the fundraising events, committee meetings and board meetings were drawing a relatively small number of participants. It’s time to build engagement.

The college also wants to diversify its alumni board, which is largely represented by older alumni. “Over 50 percent of our alumni came from the last two decades, and when you look at our board, it’s not representative of that,” Beales says.

One thing that won’t be changing is the alumni program’s staffing level, which has been consistent since the department began, Beales says. Rebecca Walz runs the program as the college’s full-time director of alumni engagement and annual fund, splitting her time between alumni matters and general fundraising. She has one full-time assistant.

Attendees at NCC’s annual “Recipes for Success” alumni awards celebration.

A new way to boost engagement

Any NCC student who earns either a degree or at least 30 credits automatically becomes a member of the alumni organization. No dues are collected. Instead, the two annual craft fairs, which generate $30,000 to $35,000 in revenue, fund the alumni program’s other activities, Beales says.

With the fall semester dedicated to planning the revamped alumni program, implementation will begin in spring 2016. Change management will be important to the success of the rollout, especially for alumni board members who have grown accustomed to the group’s traditional lineup of activities.

“For them, it was very social, so they liked the White House Dinner, even though it didn’t make a lot of money,” Beales says. “They liked the committee meetings — again, it was another social event. I would say that half the board is retired, so this is their volunteer activity.”

For these reasons, planners have taken care to communicate with the board about what changes would take place and why, as well as to consider adding a few new, less-staff-intensive activities to keep them engaged in the transition period.

“One of the challenges is that change is always uncomfortable,” Beales says.

Photos courtesy of NCC

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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