Tips for turning alumni engagement at Homecoming into alumni engagement all year
It’s homecoming season, one of the biggest alumni events on campus. We sat down with Temple University’s Kelly O’Donnell, director of alumni relations for the Fox School of Business and the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management; and Renee Pacini, senior director of product marketing at Anthology and president of the Fox School of Business Alumni Association. Read on to hear their thoughts on the many opportunities Homecoming provides for alumni and student engagement, and learn some important tips that can help you plan for your institution’s homecoming activities and beyond.
What makes Homecoming important to your institution?
Renee Pacini: Homecoming is one of the signature events for an alumni association/alumni relations collaboration. There’s a lot of activity that draws people in. We have the chance to make an impact on alumni as well as current students and their parents. The parents will come by and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re alumni and you’ve got jobs. My kid is going to get a job when they graduate,” and we can say, “Yes, we’re super successful.” We’re very proud of our alumni. And Homecoming is an opportunity to showcase real success from the institution’s perspective. That’s why it’s such a big deal.
Kelly O’Donnell: Homecoming is our annual re-introduction to the world of alumni and it brings in more new people than any other event. For example, I just got an email from a woman who named six different family members who all graduated from Temple and her son is a current student in the business school. She was asking if they’d be allowed to come to our tailgate even though they’re not alumni of the business school; and I was like, “Yes, please come meet the alumni association that your son is going to be a part of!” There are so many families where everybody went to Temple. My family is the same way and now I work here. So I just loved getting that email.
As the name suggests, Homecoming is primarily focused on bringing alumni back to campus, and it sounds like the benefits extend far beyond alumni engagement. Can you talk more about how the alumni association and institution both benefit from making this event successful?
Renee: When the alumni association developed our strategic plan, one of our foundational principles was that we needed to support the strategic plan of Fox and Temple. Temple doesn’t just support us; we support Temple as well. That mentality raises our level of visibility and effort as volunteers. It sets the tone for an “all hands on deck” operation. If you can, be there and help collect names and email addresses to make sure we can follow up with people later. We make sure to capture that contact info. Anthology Encompass is what the institution uses to do all the event scheduling and registration. For the first time this year, we’re having people registered before they come, so we can get an idea of who to expect. Encompass also allows us to continue that engagement going forward. So we’re not doing it on our own, and the school is not doing it on their own. It’s a partnership.
Kelly: Yeah, I think Homecoming is one of the biggest institution-to-alumni association partnerships throughout the year. There’s always a lot of collaboration, but for what we call “Homecoming and Family Week” there’s so much support from the university side for what the alumni association wants to do. As Renee said, we’re utilizing pre-registration through Encompass for the first time this year. We already have over 200 people pre-registered for our tent which is exciting! We’ve already captured that information, so then on the day of the event we will capture even more. Then we can get it all updated in our system and be better at communicating with our alumni throughout the year. Hopefully, they’ll come back and do something else, whether it’s a virtual professional development event that the association hosts, or our annual holiday party, which we’re very excited to have again this year. Or one of our volunteer opportunities the alumni association creates, like mentorships, etc.
Pre-registration definitely sounds like a game changer. What are some of the other ways you’re preparing for Homecoming and Family Weekend?
Renee: It’s really all about the engagement and how to get people doing things. As our liaison, Kelly understands what the larger Temple focus is going to be and she’s able to connect us with hard resources. Everything from what’s in the tent—swag, catering, etc.—to where we are in the big map of tailgate village. All of that adds up to how big a splash we can make. This year we’re very excited because we have drink tickets and food, which will bring a lot of people in our direction. We are also planning to have part of our tent for what we call Conwell and scholarship donors—these are the people that give to the institution over a certain threshold. We’ve specifically invited them to our tent so we can also use it as a donor thank you. So we do the planning around getting people to come. We plan the swag giveaways, which entices people to stop and give us their email address, which then lets us engage later. And we also have a communications campaign that will go out from our communications committee. Kelly makes sure whatever we write or whatever we send out also lines up from the marketing/communications side of Temple. We stay on brand. We stay on message. We’re not just sending our own emails.
Kelly: Yeah, for the communication side we also work with Temple Marketing & Communications to make sure we’re tapping into the school’s larger communications—making sure that Homecoming and Family Week has been featured in our weekly faculty and staff updates. Because we want faculty and staff to come! Alumni want to see the faculty and staff they remember. That’s not necessarily me and other members of alumni relations, so we work to get people from the Fox community to show up.
Renee: Yeah, favorite professors are a big draw.
Kelly: Also, making sure it’s getting into the larger alumni communications. There’s a monthly newsletter that goes out from Fox, The Fox Update, so making sure we get in there with a register link. I am going to the College Council meeting this Friday, where all the presidents of our student professional organizations get together on a monthly basis and share what they’re doing. I will be presenting and inviting student leaders to come and network with alumni at our tent. It’s a really good internal environment at Fox where I can reach out and say to faculty or staff, “How can I get in front of the alumni or the students you work with?” and they’re like, “We’ll put you on the agenda. Come on down!” That’s been helpful and really key to our efforts.
What are the typical challenges you face when engaging alumni during Homecoming and the strategies you use to overcome those challenges?
Renee: I don’t know if I’d call it a challenge, but one of the things that we always pay attention to is, “How can they stay engaged?” Sometimes we’ll print a flyer listing all our events and hand them out. Here’s what’s coming in the next six months.
Another challenge is making sure we’re reaching the right people. Again, we try to capture their email. It’s not always easy. Sometimes we’ll get people’s info because they want whatever swag we’re giving out, but they might not even be alumni. I will say—one of the tips to overcome it is the pre-registration. We know if you’ve pre-registered you are in some way connected.
Finally, getting meaningful engagement is always a challenge, but I think we overcome it by understanding who our audience is and taking advantage of the school’s resources. Making sure we have enough of an association presence, and the deans—something of substance for them to engage with aside from a hat with the Temple logo. In the past we had CSPD with us, which is our Center for Student Professional Development for both students and alumni, and that was great. I can’t tell you how many alumni came back and gave JanisCampbell, who’s one of the directors, the hugest hug and thanked her for helping them get to where they are now.
Kelly: I would say, especially after going fully virtual for the last 18 months, one challenge this year for Homecoming and beyond is figuring out: How do we not leave behind the folks who got engaged but don’t live in this area? Some opportunities better lend themselves to virtual engagement than others. For Homecoming and Family Weekend we are trying something new this year to include people who aren’t at the event with us. We’re having our intern, Hannah, come to the game to live blog on different social media channels. She’ll do Instagram stories and maybe a Facebook live. She’ll be making sure that she’s interviewing and tagging the different alumni and vendors that we’re going to have in the tent, so we’re hoping that we can at least share the spirit of the day via social media.
Renee: That’s a really good point, Kelly. And this isn’t specific to Fox, but for example, Temple has an art school and every year up until last year, they had a gallery where you could come and buy student art. Last year they made it virtual and realized—wow, now anybody from anywhere can buy our art! Now they’re doing it both ways. They did the same thing with the music school. I got an invitation to the Mosaic concert. We’re going to live stream it. You almost have to wonder why we didn’t do it that way before? Now it’s finding the silver lining of the pandemic and figuring out how to continue to operate hybrid. I think a lot of institutions are doing the same.
You’ve already shared some great tips, but is there any other advice you would give to other institutions who are planning for their Homecoming?
Renee: We touched on this a little already, but students are going to be alumni. So, part of building the future of our alumni base is proactively making sure that the most engaged students—these are the leaders of the student professional organizations—are already engaged, making sure they come and see what alumni engagement looks like. Engaged students become engaged alumni. We have an active young alumni association where many of them just naturally transition—they want to do things and meet at a bar and have a good time. Whereas those who have been out in the world a little longer might be more interested in things like professional development. So the topics will continue to change, and we try to account for that. But the tip for Homecoming and beyond is—don’t forget your current students and don’t forget to pay attention to the engaged students!
Kelly: From my perspective, you need to have staff and board buy-in. It can’t just be one or two people planning and executing the whole thing. Of course, you’re going to have point people, but our events committee co-chair who is taking the lead on Homecoming, she’s created a volunteer matrix for the day. Our board members are signing up, they’re driving in from out of town. We’re inviting them to come with a guest and sit in the box for the football game itself. Having that partnership makes people excited to come out and volunteer their time. I think it is really important.
Renee: I always tell Kelly that being the president is my unpaid part-time job. It’s a lot of work, but I do it because the institution made such a difference for me in my career and now my son is about to graduate. So, that’s how you continue to pass on that legacy where you eventually get six people in your family that go to Temple. Because you’re making an impact—you’re making a difference in lives. We don’t just give you swag; we’re going to have you talk to other people that are highly engaged. It just continues that cycle and that high level of engagement. Maybe potentially you donate money or your time and you continue to be ambassadors of the institution. One of our stated goals of the alumni association is to foster ambassadors for Fox and for Temple. And this is how we do it.
Kelly: I also see that enthusiasm during elections. We have people campaigning for themselves. People making videos or having their friends repost the links. People are excited to be part of the board, which means they turn out and they show up at 6:00 a.m. at Homecoming to help unload swag and set up the tents, and they are happy about it. They have a job, they have family, they have friends. They probably have other volunteer organizations they’re part of. This could be item three, four or five for them on any given day of the week, and they’re still showing up and putting just as much time and enthusiasm into it as if it were their full-time job. And I think that’s really amazing to see.
Renee: And hopefully we get a football win this year.
Kelly: I know, I hope so.
Thank you for all the great Homecoming tips. Go Owls