Fri 21 Apr 2017
How to lobby alumni to help you change college policy:
- Get organized first. You only have so many opportunities to get alums to care about the issue that has you all worked up. Actually, you probably only have one opportunity. Create an organization, select officers, put up a web page, recruit a “advisory board” of professors and staff, post of list of all the students who have signed on as supporters, decide on what, specifically, you want the administration to do (including packages of the minimal set of things you’d accept and the maximal set that the administration could conceivably grant). See here for a concrete example.
- Be realistic in your goals. You can demand that the College pave the walkways with chocolate, but alumni are unlikely to be impressed with your reasonableness. It is fine to have a big picture goal in mind, but what specific incremental step would you like the administration to take right now. You may want a Chicano Studies department, but what about a visiting professor next year? Some alumni will be in favor of your larger goals — and, by all means, sign them up to help with that — but, to be most effective, you want most alumni to, at minimum, think to themselves, “That doesn’t seem too outrageuous. Why won’t Morty go along?”
- Don’t be deluded into thinking that you can have a meaningful effect on alumni fundraising. The College’s fundraising machinery is massive, organized and professional. Virtually nothing that you could possibly say or do would influence it. Even a change that might conceivably have the alumni up in arms — something on the scale of ending Winter Study or the JA system — would not provide enough fodder to change the dollars flowing in. A college that could take the lead in ending fraternities can ride out almost any level of alumni frustration.
- Delegate alumni outreach to a subset of your larger organization. This will be a lot of work and someone, ideally someone not also in charge of the overall project, needs to run it. I can’t imagine doing all of this with less than 3 students. Ten would be better. There is probably enough work for 30.
- Go to the trustees last. You should, of course, gather the e-mail and mailing addresses of the trustees. Keep in mind that different trustees cover different aspects of College life. Focus on the ones in charge of that aspect of policy that you care about.
- Go to the members of executive committee of the Society of Alumni second to last. These are the most powerful alumni outside of the trustees. They care a great deal about the College and are well-informed on what is going on.
- Go to faculty and staff alumni first, but be aware that they have special obligations to the administration. As always, alumni professors with tenure have a great deal of independence. Yet they will also probably spend the rest of their lives in Williamstown. They may be willing to work with you, but will be turned off by extremism. Staff and non-tenured alumni are in a much more difficult spot. Do not expect them to publically go against the College. You should still reach out to them, though, since they may be willing to help and they will undoubtedly have good advice for you. The alums who work in the Alumni Development Office will also know a great deal about which specific alumni might be most interested in your cause.
- Make an appointment and physically meet with every alumnus on campus. Be serious, courteous, punctual and polite. Take notes. If possible, send two students to each meeting. (Does not have to be the same two.) Include senior folks like Brooks Foehl ’88, Dick Nesbitt ’74 and Jim Kolesar ’72. They are all busy people but they love Williams every bit as much as you do. Besides looking for their advice and soliciting their support, you are also sending a signal. You are demonstrating to the administration that you are serious and organized. The real power that you have over the administration — to the extent that you have any power at all — is not that you can talk to the trustees. After all, once you have talked to them, you are out of options. The power that you have lies in the credible threat you make that you will talk to the trustees. The College would never try, nor could it succeed, in stopping you from doing so, but, all else equal, they would prefer that you didn’t.
- Contact some non-Williamstown alumni. This is where the real work starts. First problem is that you don’t know them! Second problem is that the College is not going to make it easy for you to contact them. (Go ahead and ask them for a listing of e-mail address. They won’t give it to you — nor do I think that they should.) So, you need to network. Start with:
- Alumni that you know personally.
- Alumni parents of students that you know.
- Alumni actively involved with the College. Class officers, class agents, regional society officers and career mentors are all good candidates. The Alumni Development web site provides a wealth of leads on contact information. Note that class secretaries are easy to reach since 1988secretary _at_ alumni.williams.edu goes to, for example, the secretary for my class.
- Alumni that you know/think/hope will have a particular interest in your cause.
- Alumni who any of the above put you in touch with.
Being able to network effectively is an incredibly important skill out in the real world, so the practice you get with it on this project will serve you in good stead.
- Initial alumni contacts should all be Eph-to-Eph. You should not, at this stage, be sending out form e-mails. Each e-mail should come from a specific student in your group (not from the group as a whole) and go to a single alumni. Of course, each student will be sending out lots of e-mails, but they should all be personalized. Something like:
Dear Mr. Field,
My name is Joe Shoer and I am a junior at Williams. I am part of a group, Students for Due Diligence on Housing, concerned about proposed changes in housing policy at Williams. You can read about our work at http://wso.williams.edu/~coolwebpage.htm. We are trying to gather information about . . . blah, blah, blah. Would it be possible for me contact you about . . . blah, blah, blah?
And so on.
The point is that, for your initial contact, you are not trying to get them to do anything except help you. You are looking for advice, information, suggestions. You need words of wisdom from Ephs a grayer shade of purple.
- Flatter the alumni. To a certain extent, the above is a pose. You already know what you want. You just need the alumni to help you pressure the administration into giving it to you. Perhaps. But
- you’d be surprised at how much information alumni have about former battles and debates back in the day.
- flattery works.
The more that alumni think that this is not so much your cause as our cause, the better off you are. You should try to have phone conversations with as many alumni as possible.
- Stay organized. You need to be able to keep track of which alumni you have tried to contact, which have responded and which students are in charge of each relationship. This is harder to do than it sounds.
- Advertise your growing clout. Prominently display on the web site a listing of “Alumni Supporters”. This should be comprised of the maximum number of alums that you can get and, therefore, should feature the lowest common denominator of support. That is, the page should specify that “The following alumni of Williams call on the College to consider seriously . . . whatever.” There may be some subset of the alumni that you contact that you will, later on, convince to ask the College to grant your maximal demands. But, for now, you are just building your reputation with the administration. You want as long a list of names as possible. Specify relevant Williams data in the list (i.e., class secretary, CC president, reunion committee chair).
- Be honest and conservative in which alumni you list in supporting. Never fudge the issue of alumni support. Do not put an alum’s name on the list unless you are certain she wants it to be there. This should be the goal of every initial contact with an alum. After you have asked for their advice and reminisces, check to see of they would be willing to add their name to the list. If they say yes, follow up with an e-mail that states that you have added their name along with a link to the actual page. Even alums who don’t have time to talk with you may be willing to add their name to a reasonable cause (i.e., your minimal set of demands).
- Having worked retail, go wholesale. At this point, you may be able to start contacting alumni en masse. This is harder to do than it sounds. Although the College regularly communicates with alumni as a whole electronically (most commonly through EphNotes), it is unlikely to make this available to you. There are bulk mailing lists, but you will need alumni help to access them. Start with:
- Class mailing list. Each class has a mailing list that, theoretically, might be used for contacting alumni about important issues on campus.
- Regional mailing lists.
- Special interest mailing lists.
I doubt that you will be able to post to these directly. I think that the College moderates all lists. But alumni who are members of these lists can post to them and the College would be loathe to censor their speech.
- Take care with your form letters. Don’t use Microsoft Word. Consider pdf. Text is never a bad choice. Note that you will be relying on sometimes technologically challenged alums to actually forward the letter along. I would recommend both a text and pdf version. You’ll end up having occasion for both. Each letter should:
- Be brief and professional.
- Provide the e-mail address for a specific student that an interested alum could contact. (Does not need to be the same student in every letter.)
- Provide a link to your web page.
- Give the reader an easy way to sign up to your list of alumni supporters. (Best is probably by e-mailing the student contact.)
The goal is to find two sorts of alumni. First, those who will sign up for your support statement. Second, those who are willing to do more.
- Having maximized your general alumni support, it is now time to focus on the alumni with real power. With luck, you have already gathered a few of these (class officers and agents, reunion committee and gift chairs), but the next step is the executive board of the Society of Alumni. Contact each member. Be polite and persistent. Only have one person from your group contact each person. If any of your other alumni supporters know these Ephs, encourage them to e-mail. As always, you don’t want every one of your alumni supporters to e-mail every one of the committee members. But, in the case of alumni to alumni contacts, especially ones from the same era, a little overlap is probably a good idea. That is, if you have five supporters from the class of 1984, getting each of them to e-mail/call each of committee members from mid-1980’s classes is probably a good idea. Note that the board meets 4 times a year, generally in Williamstown. Try to set up individual meetings with as many board members as possible. Seek one-on-one contacts.
- Go to the Administration one last time before going to the trustees. If you have actually done all the above, then you are a force to be reckoned with. Lots of students complain each year. The administration must, per force, learn to ignore most of them. But if you have succeeded in getting significant alumni support — where significant might be as few as 50 or 100 confirmed supporters — you clearly mean business. The administration would prefer that you not bother the trustees. The administration would prefer to “solve” this problem, to demonstrate to the trustees that it knows how to run the College. Negotiate with them. See if compromise is possible. Your most powerful point of leverage is the day before you start calling trustees.
- Go to the trustees. There is a sense that, by this stage, you have already lost. The trustees would hate to have to overrule the administration. Historically, I can’t think of a single case where this has actually happened. In talking to the trustees:
- Leave nothing in reserve. If you have a student petition (and you’d better have one), mail a physical copy to each trustee. If you have supporters that are powerful alums, ask them to e-mail/call specific trustees that they have some connection to.
- Most of the above advice still applies. You want to have as many one-on-one meetings with the trustees as possible. Reach out to them as individuals.
- Be polite but persistent. The trustees do not meet with every (any?) disaffected student. But, if you have gathered significant student and alumni support, they have an obligation to meet with you.
- Frame the issue as a “problem” that you are seeking the trustees help to “solve.” You are not so much making demands as seeking advice. Again, this is a bit of a pose but the trustees are serious people who will not be intimidated. Threats won’t work.
- Be gracious and magnanimous. Do not imply base motives to the administration. Recognize that all involved love Williams.
Walk out with your head held high. If you have gotten to meet with the trustees, you have done just about everything humanly possible to advance your goals.
Several thousand more words of advice below the break:
No student group at Williams has ever done this, by the way. Partly this is a function of technology (imagine doing it without e-mail!), partly it is a matter of knowledge and partly it is a matter of desire. Well, the technology is available and the knowledge is above. It’s not for an old alum such as I to judge whether any particular student has the desire . . .
Well, do you?
— Original version of this advice published in 2005.
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