The strength of alumni soft power
Alumni—whether former students, colleagues, or volunteers—can be our strong sources of strategic advantage if we keep them in our community and continue to draw on their talents. The power of alumni has even risen to the attention of international statecraft. It is a shame to overlook it in our civil society where we create some of the most lasting and meaningful human connections.
Fulbright Exchanges, the Alliance Francaise, the Confucius Institute, the British Council and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst: all are efforts to build understanding and relationships across borders. The scientific and cultural ties they create are meant to foster a common culture and beneficial collaboration among leaders in different countries and to avoid the horrors of mass conflict that punctuated the 20th century. These efforts are examples of “soft power,” a term coined by Professor Joe Nye at Harvard. In contrast to the hard power that compels others through military might or economic sanction, “soft power” attracts others to affiliate, join in, and participate in a community of mutual trust and shared principle.
Professor Nye points to the UK as a middle-sized power with a middle-sized economy that punches way above its weight in terms of soft power—through its institutions of higher learning, its globally distributed movie and music creations, and even its constitutionally constrained royalty whose celebrity lifestyles and good works capture the imaginations of publics across the globe.
I had the privilege of participating in conversations with UK authorities as they sought to nurture positive feelings toward the UK in East and Southeast Asia, where their universities have large numbers of influential alumni but not the levels of resources needed to cultivate them. The authorities wondered how they could help UK universities better engage their alumni and also how to transfer the warm feeling toward their alma mater to benefit their nation.
Alumni are the key outcomes that colleges have in the world. But if we only measure what graduates have accomplished with their degrees, we miss the larger opportunity to keep them engaged with their alma mater. We also miss the opportunity for them to engage with each other, and to build on the shared educational experience that not only helped improve their skills and knowledge but also often forged who they are and the content of their characters.
Alumni are the carriers of soft power for our schools, colleges and universities. But the alumni experience is not limited to educational institutions. Organizations that live and thrive based on their ability to attract and retain talent should all be engaged with their alumni, broadly understood to include former donors, volunteers, board members, and employees. Look at one of the leading business consultancies, McKinsey and Co. Their alumni network of former employees features prominently in the company’s recruitment of some of the best and brightest graduates from top universities around the world. Of course, this network also helps with business development and in staying atop trends, which plays a direct role in maintaining the analytic edge that commands a premium in the business consultancy market.
In the education sector, we have many exemplary alumni relations programs where spirit, loyalty and engagement are strong. Yet there are just as many organizations who feel that because their sports teams are not on television, or that they do not have “formal” alumni, or—name your rationale—they don’t have the means to stay engaged with former colleagues who are no longer an active part of their operational every day.
Think of long-standing institutions that have made significant contributions to shaping our world, as they recount their histories with pride. Look to see how they marshaled that most important asset of meaningful relationships, and how they kept the talent flowing to grow, prosper, and inspire. They tend to stay in touch with the talent they nurtured and continue to engage it in meaningful ways.
Many of us know that the relationships we have with our employers, employees, customers, and community are precious assets. Yet how often do we devote the time and energy to pursue the long-term soft power of our relationships? Too often we allow ourselves to be ruled by the tyranny of the present and the hard power needed to address immediate operational challenges.
In the long run, it is the alumni we create that reflect our strength as an institution, and keeping our focus there is the abiding challenge.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean