Alumni engagement: Mobilizing a village of volunteers
March 6, 2020
“Please don’t raise your hand for anything,” Erik Hoffman (ECON ’93, FIN ’93, PSCI ’93) recalls his wife quipping before he left for a meeting as a new member of the industry advisory board for Virginia Tech’s real estate program.
She was only partly kidding. Hoffman is an attorney at a large Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in affordable housing and community development. Representing project developers keeps him busy, as does serving on the boards of two nonprofit housing organizations.
Getting involved with another group would mean additional obligations. But he had joined the Virginia Tech board because he wanted to help guide the real estate program and its current and future students. “People are sometimes nervous to raise their hands at meetings, because they think they are going to be tasked,” Hoffman said. “But you’re there already. You should take it to the next level.”
Kenneth Cooke (ACCT ’92) has been a steadfast donor to Virginia Tech since graduation: “I did not make much money, but I had to give something, because I had such a great experience, and I thought I needed to be financially committed.” His gifts grew in size as his career flourished. Now a vice president-controller at American Express, Cooke also seized opportunities to expand his ties with the university.
Inspired by other alumni, Cooke accepted one invitation to join the accounting and information systems advisory board, and later, another, for the Pamplin Advisory Council. “It’s as simple as someone calling and asking you to get involved,” Cooke said. “I was asked, and I said ‘yes.’ Along the way, I started asking others to get more engaged.” And, as a result, he said, he has gotten to know alumni he never would have met otherwise.
From student leader to active alum
For Shirley Edwards (ACCT ’82), being an active alum evolved naturally from her student leader days, as president of Beta Alpha Psi. As a young accounting professional, she returned to campus as a recruiter for her firm and classroom speaker on industry topics. These activities, she said, kept her connected with campus and, she said, “very importantly for me, with the faculty.”
“Maintaining those connections really kept me grounded with Pamplin and the university, so that as I progressed in my career, that level of involvement continued to progress.” Edwards, a partner at EY, joined her department’s board and eventually the Pamplin Advisory Council. “And as I moved through those iterations of alumni engagement, so did my philanthropy.”
Hoffman, Cooke, and Edwards were among the 300-plus alumni and friends who showed up for Pamplin’s first-ever Engagement Summit on Oct. 10-11, 2019 at the Hotel Roanoke.
The event brought the college’s senior volunteer leaders — members of Pamplin’s 21 organizations of alumni and friends — together with Dean Robert Sumichrast and Pamplin department heads and other program leaders to discuss the state of the college’s alumni engagement (see sidebar below) and the role such activities — including board service, philanthropy, and event participation — can play in the college’s efforts to transform business education for the 21st century through its planned Global Business and Analytics Complex.
“The summit was an unprecedented networking opportunity for us to exchange ideas, partner with one other, and plan to shape the future of the college,” said Sumichrast afterwards.
The event’s timing, he said, reflects the launch of Pamplin’s new five-year strategic plan and coincided with the public kickoff of Boundless Impact: The Campaign for Virginia Tech, which seeks to raise funds and engage alumni and friends.
The summit included Sumichrast’s state-of-the-college address, remarks by Virginia Tech senior vice president Dwayne Pinckney, and breakout sessions on mentorship, alumni community building, and the role of volunteer leaders.
A highlight was a panel featuring Cooke, Edwards, and Negar Jamshidimehr (FIN ’11, MACIS ’13), who talked about their service activities at Pamplin and Virginia Tech and their motivations for involvement. The discussion was moderated by Kevin Lane (ACCT ’95, MACCT ’00), who chairs the Pamplin Advisory Council’s alumni engagement committee.
Why is alumni engagement important? Such activities, Lane said, helped the college achieve what it has so far, but “we need more to get us to where we want to go — and we have to be more deliberate, more intentional, in our outreach.”
There are challenges to overcome, opportunities to seize. How best to recruit new supporters? What are unexplored possibilities, tools, blind spots? What motivates alumni to get involved?
Some alumni find philanthropy fulfilling, while others are animated by classroom speaking and advising and mentoring students. “We want to approach alums in ways that resonate with them and that will enhance their experience with and affinity for Pamplin,” Lane said.
The college is especially interested in drawing from underrepresented groups, including younger alumni and black alumni. A more diverse volunteer community would help attract a more diverse body of students and faculty members. Said Cooke: “Not just black students, I want LGBTQ+, disabled, Indian … I want more of everything that makes us better.”
Younger alumni, with their priorities of building careers and tending families, have been a particular challenge to engage.
Jamshidimehr, a tax manager at EY, is among the young alums who have stayed actively involved. As a student, she had “benefited tremendously” from her interactions with and mentorship from active alumni and professors, “specifically, Drs. Reza Barkhi, Debra Salbador, Larry Killough, and Eugene Seago.” As a result, she was eager to similarly give back as soon as she graduated.
As the vice chair of the Accounting and Information Systems Emerging Leaders Board and a PUMP mentor, Jamshidimehr advises students that they do not need to wait 10 or 15 years after graduation to start giving back, “because giving back is not solely monetary contributions — mentoring is what you can be doing as soon as you graduate.”
At the other end of the spectrum, alumni who are in retirement or nearing it represent a singular opportunity for the college. Such veterans could be tapped to be speakers, mentors, teachers, Edwards said. “We’ve got to capture that energy and not let that slip away.”
Lane has been working on what he calls Pamplin’s alumni lifecycle framework. “Over the last year we have built a basic design that will be the foundation of the framework that we will refine into a detailed design that we can then operationalize.”
Tackling the many tasks ahead will take a village of volunteers. “We have to take full advantage of all the talent we have, and we need everyone’s help,” Lane said. “Everyone’s opinion matters and can help shape how we engage in future.”
Perhaps the greatest legacy of an alumnus, Lane said, is in the other Hokies they inspire and whose lives they touch or make a difference, not just in building successful careers but in developing a deeper and richer relationship with Pamplin and Virginia Tech.
Said Cooke: “I really feel that that momentum is truly in Pamplin right now. I want to be a part of that.”
For Hoffman, showing up is half the battle. Stepping it up means stepping forward, following up, taking on, “producing a real deliverable.” He’s ready to roll up his sleeves.
Alumni, engagement defined
The Pamplin Advisory Council has adopted the definitions of the Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) for alumni and engagement.
In short, alumni are graduates of Virginia Tech as well as others with a prior academic relationship with the university, including non-graduates, certificate holders, and distance or lifelong learners.
Engagement comprises activities that help build a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the university and its alumni. These are activities that alumni value, inspire their loyalty and financial support, and involve them in supporting their alma mater’s mission and reputation.
CASE categorizes the activities as volunteer (board membership, student mentoring, and classroom speaking, for example); experiential (not just a series of special events, but experiences that inspire alumni while promoting the institution’s mission and reputation), philanthropic (all forms of financial and in-kind support), and communication (interactive and informative communication, including social media posts and “likes” and class notes submissions.