When Indiana University Alumni Association (IUAA) approached us about facilitating their Board of Managers retreat, they were just wrapping up their last five-year strategic plan. Those five years had been a time of considerable change, with many challenges driven by industry shifts within higher education. The annual retreat was the perfect opportunity to begin conversations about what worked, what hadn't worked, and what should be next for this storied institution.
Jenny, Jeb and I rolled up our sleeves with our IUAA project partners J T Forbes and Rebecca Keith to brainstorm what kind of experience we wanted to create, and how we might best maximize the time we spent with their board to uncover insights and opportunities. We settled on a few exercises, one of which was to explore value profiles of alumni from different eras by making collaborative collages.
We often create personas or audience profiles to better understand people and their needs, whether we're building a website, designing a logo or facilitating an analog experience like a retreat. Through this activity, we aimed to unpack common drivers and behaviors of the wide range of alumni IUAA serves. We titled the exercise Alumni Past and Future. This challenge is being played out in alumni associations across the country. How do you serve alumni from different generations, whose preferences, from benefits to how they seek belonging, are markedly unique? And how do you find common ground?
For the first profile, we decided to explore the graduate from 1969, the year IUAA received 501c3 status and onboarded its first Board of Managers. Then, we looked to the future graduate of 2020, to juxtapose preferences for those who will graduate at the tail end of the forthcoming strategic plan. To make it extra fun, we ordered a big stash of magazines from eBay from the sixties to use in the Alumni Past profile, and then modern magazines like Fast Company and Inc. to build out the Alumni Future profile.
During the board retreat, we split into three groups, each equipped with stacks of magazines, scissors and tape. When we began planning this experience, we didn't yet know the makeup of the board. It felt quite fortuitous that the IUAA Board of Managers included individuals from a current student to those who had been on campus in 1969 – and everyone in-between. Of course, this was purposeful board building on IUAA's part. Having their diverse perspectives to draw from enriched the experience of profile building.
When we reconvened, we shared why we chose various images and words to describe the life and values of the alumni. During times of change and for initiatives like strategic planning, using personal and organizational values can be an incredibly helpful lens. Values show up through the stories people tell, and it was no different during the retreat – we were moved by stories the group told about the history of IU, as well as visions for the future.
As we facilitated open, candid conversations about the alumni profiles we had built, we found many areas of difference, but we also uncovered shared values that we could use to bridge the generational divide and streamline efforts to better serve all alumni – no small challenge considering Indiana University has 600,000 (and growing!) living alumni around the world. We unpacked a lot of unique and shared values for each, but here's a small snapshot:
Alumni Past valued unity, had a sense of duty toward institutions and our country, and some preference toward exclusivity. They were more likely to follow a traditional path after graduation with a steady job and no debt.
Alumni Future valued things like inclusivity, diversity and flexibility. They were more likely to collect experiences than strive for major material possessions, and didn't value traditions and authority the way a 1969 grad might.
The one shared value that rose to the top – both generations are strongly motivated to serve others. Exploring how to fully activate this shared drive to serve became a key point of our conversations – and will be a factor in the strategic plan.
It's fairly standard to build profiles in our industry as a way to understand audiences, and there are many ways to go about them. This method was particularly visual, collaborative and immersive way to gain shared understanding of those we are serving. In any profile building, we feel it ups the game considerably to focus on values, not just basics like earning potential and work status. (Though this is website focused, here’s one source that lists common elements of a persona, which differs from a profile, in that the profile created is an individual representing a whole group.)
Values get to the heart of what really motivates (or might alienate) your audience.
What's next: The outcome of this exercise was a wonderful artifact – a one-sheet with each profile, including descriptive words about values – to help frame up this major challenges we've aimed to address in the strategic planning process.
We've gone on to conduct 11 more insight sessions with stakeholders from a wide swath of the IU family. Each began with a conversation around the alumni profiles and the shared, as well as disparate, values across the generations. We designed a series of other exercises to facilitate the conversation. Our objective was to listen. We've heard wonderful stories and anecdotes and witnessed moving levels of devotion from IU alum volunteers to their alma mater.
Now that the sessions are wrapped and we've heard so many wonderful insights, we've moved onto collaborating with the IUAA team on writing their next five-year strategic plan.