Jun 6, 2017Capture the Moment
A successful alumni engagement campaign can extend the fulfillment of graduation into a lasting connection to an athletic training program.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
For athletic training students, one door closes on graduation day. Yet, many new doors open. One of those doors should lead them to becoming engaged alumni with their alma mater.
Cultivating an active athletic training alumni base is not a passive process. On the contrary, maintaining a bond between a university and its alumni requires work and commitment from both parties.
At the University of Delaware, we’ve tried to actively involve our more than 600 Athletic Training Education Program (ATEP) alumni. We greatly value their contributions, and we show our esteem by building lifelong relationships with them. On top of that foundation, we’ve invested in newsletters, awards programs, and an annual party.
In return, alumni have become equal partners in our endeavors. They have enthusiastically embraced our efforts and increased their annual giving. When done the right way, investing in your program’s alumni is mutually rewarding.
A big part of engaging alumni is making the first contact. My efforts to build relationships with UD alumni started shortly after I became ATEP Director in 2003. Founded in 1973, UD has one of the longest-running ATEPs in the country, so there was an expansive alumni base that I had to try to connect with.
My first act was sending a letter to all of our alumni letting them know who I was and presenting my vision for the future. I felt that a “hard copy” letter was the best form of initial communication, as it added a dimension of formality lacking in an e-mail.
The feedback from this mailing was very favorable. Our alumni appreciated the reach out, as it reconnected them to UD’s ATEP. I also believe it broke down any barriers that might have prevented them from contacting me in the future.
In order to send the letters, we relied on addresses provided by UD’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Reaching out to this department allowed me to establish a good working relationship with them. It’s important to touch base with your campus’ alumni staff when starting this type of campaign to make sure you don’t step on each other’s toes.
In addition, acquiring the addresses from UD’s alumni office enabled me to begin building a database exclusively for UD’s ATEP, which was something I felt strongly about. Taking ownership of the database and not having to rely on the alumni office afforded me greater flexibility and access to our alumni network, as well as the freedom to update the information at any time.
I compiled our ATEP database using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and the initial data received from UD’s alumni office. For others looking to take a similar step, my advice is to be patient with the process. There are often many errors in an existing directory, so it may take multiple attempts to get everything correct. Enlist the help of students or staff, and you’ll be surprised how well the database comes together.
Following my initial letter, we shifted our primary mode of alumni communication to e-mail. We usually send out seven to 10 e-mail blasts each year, which typically include reminders about our alumni party, news stories involving the program, and an occasional job posting. Over the years, I’ve learned not to overdo the e-mail blasts, otherwise the recipients will block the messages.
Besides engaging alumni, the e-mail campaigns serve the dual purpose of keeping our revamped database up to date. The e-mails encourage alumni to provide updates in their professional and personal lives via a link on the UD ATEP alumni page. We’ve developed a Qualtrics-based questionnaire that allows them to send in information on job shifts, home address changes, e-mail address changes, marital status, and any other news they wish to share.
I know other ATEPs rely solely on Facebook for alumni communication, but I’ve found that e-mail works best for us. Although we do have an alumni Facebook page and Twitter account, they are handled outside of our university environment. I know the individuals who direct these accounts and work with them on an as-needed basis to get the word out about any program happenings.
SPREADING THE NEWS
Although we’ve gotten great responses from our e-mail campaigns, there is still something to be said about a good, old-fashioned newsletter. I developed an annual alumni newsletter in my previous position as ATEP Director at the University of Florida, and it’s a tradition I’ve continued at UD.
The current version of our newsletter is a PDF that we post to the UD ATEP alumni page every summer, and we send out an e-mail when it’s available. It usually includes stories about current UD undergraduate or graduate students, faculty accolades, research endeavors, and other updates. Most years, it’s more than 30 pages long!
Because of its length, getting the newsletter together requires a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy. To generate ideas for articles, I compile stories, news clippings, alumni e-mail correspondences, and other interesting tidbits throughout the year.
By early May, I usually have a good deal gathered, so I begin the newsletter-building process in earnest. Some of our more creative ATEP undergraduate students and I write most of the articles. But each newsletter also features an “Alumni Spotlight” section that is written by the person we choose to highlight, as well as a column authored by Head Athletic Trainer Dan Watson, MEd, ATC. I serve as the final editor for all content.
When all the articles are ready, we put the newsletter together using Microsoft Publisher. We’ve created a template for the layout and make changes to it every few years to prevent it from getting stale.
Despite all the work, the newsletter’s dividends are always rewarding. Our alumni report that getting their copy each summer is one correspondence they look forward to the most.
We like to cultivate relationships with alumni further by highlighting their achievements through various awards. Honoring alumni in this way creates an even stronger bond between them, UD, and our ATEP. We typically offer up nominations for several awards on an annual basis.
For starters, the “Alumni Spotlight” section in our newsletter recognizes a noteworthy athletic training alum. To choose this person, we ask our faculty for suggestions. I then vet the nominations and make a decision, trying to maintain a balance between male and female winners and spreading them evenly through the decades. Those chosen for the Alumni Spotlight are always honored and humbled.
Another award that we’ve used to recognize an excellent ATEP alum is the Outstanding Alumni Award. This is given by UD’s Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology in the College of Health Sciences, which the ATEP is part of. During my tenure, two of our alumni have been recognized for this honor.
Even more prestigious is UD’s Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement Award. This is presented to an exceptional alum who embodies the UD ideals of excellence, talent, discipline, passion, and vision. Someone from the ATEP has won this prize three times since I’ve been program director.
Perhaps our biggest venture to engage UD ATEP alumni is through our annual alumni party. It’s held in conjunction with the NATA’s Annual Meeting and Clinical Symposia each June.
The party is usually held at a bar or restaurant, and UD alumni are encouraged to mingle with one another and catch up over food and drinks. The structure of the event is informal and casual, allowing plenty of time for conversation and networking.
There is one minor element of business at the party, though. Our accrediting agency likes us to get feedback from our alumni on their UD ATEP experience and how it has impacted their careers. For this reason, we bring laptops to the party that are open to our online alumni survey. We ask all attendees to take five minutes and fill it out.
Toward the end of the party, we raffle off UD apparel items donated from the Blue Hens Athletic Equipment staff. This activity is always a huge hit, and seeing alumni go home wearing a UD T-shirt or jersey with smiles on their faces is very pleasing. Proceeds from the raffle go to support the Joan Coach Athletic Training Scholarship Award.
My graduate students and I begin planning the next year’s alumni party almost immediately following the conclusion of the current year’s event. I’ve learned through past experience that informing alumni well in advance of the party’s date helps attendance, as it affords ample time for planning and travel arrangements. So we usually send out a “save-the-date” e-mail in the fall before each gathering.
When picking a venue, we’ve found that consulting with alumni or colleagues who live in the city where the convention is being held can be helpful. After we get their input, we then reach out to secure a location early.
As worthwhile as the alumni party is, it’s not cheap. To keep costs associated with room rental fees down, we’ve split our venue with colleagues from the University of Kentucky for the past three years. Carl Mattacola, PhD, ATC, FNATA, Professor and Associate Dean of Academic and Faculty Affairs at Kentucky, is a close friend of mine and graciously shares the space.
We’ve gotten creative to find additional ways to fund our alumni party. For instance, we’ve relied heavily on donations from vendors, suppliers, and local physician groups that are supported by UD athlete referrals. Their contributions generally allow us to raise up to $1,500 each year to support the party’s costs. In return, our sponsors are awarded with a full-page ad in our newsletter. The Delaware Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Athletic Training Student Association here at UD have also supported the alumni party, and attendees are charged a nominal fee upon arrival.
Taking into consideration all that we do to engage UD athletic training alumni, you might be asking yourself: What’s in it for the ATEP? One of the primary benefits goes back to the development and maintenance of relationships. It is amazing how many new bonds I’ve forged with alumni just through the initiatives we offer.
A lot of times, these strong alumni connections provide a pipeline for future athletic training students attending UD. As our alumni network continues to grow, word spreads quickly about the quality of our program and the type of student it graduates. I can’t say enough about how important our alumni relationships have been in helping UD’s ATEP maintain its excellence over the years.
In addition, enhanced engagement has also resulted in increased alumni giving. During my time at UD, alumni contributions to the ATEP gift account have quadrupled. One of the reasons for this is that we establish a level of comfort with our alumni before going for the “ask.” It also helps that we’ve made giving easier than ever. Our annual newsletter reminds alumni that they can target gifts to the UD ATEP, and we provide the specific account number for doing so.
The donations acquired from these efforts have been used to support a variety of educational and professional development activities for our students, faculty, and staff that would have gone unfunded due to declining institutional support. Once during my tenure, we even sent out a targeted mailing to raise more than $50,000 to endow the Keith Handling Scholarship Award. In the future, I anticipate doing another campaign with our alumni for facility development or other big dollar initiatives.
The last-and arguably, most important-benefit of alumni engagement is the connections it opens up for past and present students regarding employment and/or graduate school opportunities. Our faculty and staff are constantly reminding our students to reach out and network with alumni, and our students have benefited greatly from these encounters.
In all, I probably spend too much time managing our alumni, but I consider it one of my most important duties as UD ATEP Director. You don’t need to be in charge of an ATEP to dive into the alumni engagement world, though. I encourage any interested athletic trainer to jumpstart an alumni initiative-after all, we all have alma maters. Alumni provide the bridge to the past, present, and future. It’s important to keep them connected.
CALL OF THE HALL
Another way to engage alumni is by starting a Hall of Fame, as was recently undertaken by the University of Montana’s Athletic Training Program.
By Dr. Valerie Moody
At the University of Montana, we have historically seen lax participation from our Athletic Training Program alumni. During a department faculty meeting a few years ago, we began discussing how to change this. The idea we settled on was a Hall of Fame.
Since that initial staff meeting, we’ve held Hall of Fame celebrations over the past two homecoming weekends. We’ve inducted a total of seven deserving individuals, and the initiative has proven very effective in energizing our alumni.
Montana’s Athletic Training Program has its roots in the early 1900s. With so many distinguished alumni to consider, choosing each Hall of Fame class has been tough. In addition, our options have been even more numerous because we opened up nominations to individuals who have demonstrated commitment to our department, even if they did not attend Montana. For example, one inductee was not an alumnus but had worked with our program for more than 30 years, mentoring staff and students and significantly contributing to our profession. Nominations are solicited through our program newsletter each spring and must include the candidate’s contact information, curriculum vitae, and a paragraph or two describing their accomplishments. The individual must also meet one or more of the following criteria:
• Be an alum of the Montana Athletic Training Program.
• Have practiced as an athletic trainer at Montana for a minimum of 15 years.
• Have served as a clinical preceptor or approved clinical instructor at Montana for a minimum of 15 years.
• Have provided service to the Montana Athletic Training Program or Rhinehart Athletic Treatment Center deemed noteworthy by Montana students, alumni, faculty, or staff.
After we receive the nominations, our athletic training faculty and staff review and rank them. Once the winners are chosen, the inductees and their nominees are notified early in the summer. The athletic training faculty coordinates and financially assists with our soon-to-be Hall of Famers’ flights, room reservations, and car rentals. We have a designated budget for the event through a program fee.
Invitations to attend the Hall of Fame celebration are sent to all of our athletic training alumni through our campus Office of Alumni Relations in August. We reserve a room and arrange catering once we have received RSVP information from our guests.
The Hall of Fame induction brunch takes place on the Friday before the homecoming football game. The event usually draws a crowd of about 100 alumni, students, faculty, staff, athletic trainers, and university administrators. Each inductee is given 20 to 30 minutes to describe their experiences in sports medicine, the challenges they’ve faced, and the rewards of working in the profession.
Following the celebration, athletic training students, faculty, and staff give our new Hall of Famers a campus tour, and then they are introduced at our college-wide reception that afternoon. To give alumni more opportunities to visit with the inductees, we also plan an informal dinner or breakfast. The honorees wrap up their weekend by attending the homecoming football game on Saturday.
In the short time we have been organizing our Hall of Fame event, it’s had a profound impact on the Athletic Training Program. For one, it has helped increase alumni donations. Because of this, we were able to establish the Naseby and Evelyn Rhinehart Athletic Training Scholarship last year to support currently enrolled students.
Furthermore, the Hall of Fame event has allowed us to learn so much about the history of our profession, our program, and our alumni. We have laughed together, cried together, and learned from each other. Alumni leave the celebration energized, inspired, refreshed, and looking forward to next year’s return to campus. By creating this event, we have found a way to re-engage our athletic training alumni, honor the past, and celebrate the future.
Valerie Moody, PhD, LAT, ATC, CSCS, is Athletic Training Program Director and Professor of Athletic Training at the University of Montana. She can be reached at: [email protected].