Divestment Campaign Resource Guide

Getting Started Organizing Alumni

This toolkit is designed to assist student organizers in engaging alumni to help build fossil fuel divestment campaigns. The toolkit provides framing for the importance of engaging alumni, best practices for organizing with alumni, as well as strategies for how alumni and students can strategically work to strengthen tactics for a fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Why Your University Cares So Much About Alumni

Though many universities were founded with altruistic missions, most have morphed into businesses that provide educational services to students, research to corporations, and stimulus to regional economies. Together, universities form an industry called ‘higher education’. This structure should affect the way people working on divestment campaigns design their campaign strategies and think about their interactions with administrators.

If your campaign has had difficulty getting traction or success with your administration, one reason may be that, for some universities, current students are not the most important stakeholders. Donors are often the most important group to a university administration: “[t]he primary source of endowment funds at American colleges and universities has been gifts from donors.”1 Further, “our 2005 paper showed that for the average institution, about one-half of the endowment growth came from new gifts over a ten-year period (1994-2003) and the appreciation on those gifts.”2

For most public and private universities, a university’s endowment is a substantial source of its operating funds. Diminishing public funding of universities has led universities to focus on endowment-building: “Despite steadily growing student demand for higher education since the mid-1970s, state fiscal investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980. Public higher education is gradually being privatized.”3 Further, “Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education would reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others.”

Consequently, donors are key to university financial health, and ultimately the university’s ability to operate. The largest group of donors for most universities are their alumni, although all students represent cash flow. Universities make money from students through tuition, fees, housing, and supplies. However, this source of funding is limited, since while students are in school, they are incurring costs that may exceed their tuition. As alumni, former students have a greater cash flow potential to contribute to the university through donations, planned giving (which refers to donations of stock or estate upon passing), and other forms of value such as connections, reputation, and accomplishments garnered during the alumni’s career. In finance, something that does this is called an ‘asset.’ This cash flow is essential to grow the endowment, support programs, and capitalize other services at the university.

Thus, the importance of gaining alumni support for divestment goals should not be underestimated. To the extent alumni support can be made contingent on the university meeting the goals of a divestment campaign, the more leverage and likely success your campaign will have.

Alumni Organizing 101

When to Begin Organizing Alumni

Many campaigns that utilize alumni do so after developing a core, student-based, on-campus campaign, as a second stage mechanism.4 However, with some forethought, alumni organizing can start on day one, in conjunction with on-campus campaign development. The earlier you are able to bring alumni in, the more credibility your campaign will have with your administration, and the more resources will be available to you from the professional community.

What Alumni Can Do In A Campaign

Alumni can be integrated into the on-campus campaign, established as a separate but parallel campaign, or both. Alumni can amplify campaigns in a variety of ways.

Professional expertise
  • They may bring resources and services to the campaign related to their profession, from programming to communications to catering.
  • If they are a policy expert or some type of community leader themselves, they can serve as experts on panels and speak at events.
  • Note that appeals for alumni’s support in the form of professional skills and contacts should come at a stage when their buy-in has been established. Requests for alumni support via their professional skills can be presented as opportunities for leadership in the campaign.


As established professionals, alumni may be able to bring a broader net of connections to the campaign.

  • Demonstrates a broad coalition: If you recruit alumni who are interested in actions, they can accompany students to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your coalition, or write supportive op-eds, or letters to administrators speaking in favor of the action.
  • Financial support: Alumni may be able to provide financial resources to the campaign beyond what current students are able to bring.
  • Peer pressure: Alumni of similar age with the administrators you are working with may be able to exert peer pressure that younger students are unable to successfully apply.

Growing your campaign and supporting the movement

  • Leverage media to blast the news far and wide. A big media splash will support campaigns worldwide by pressuring administrations to follow suit, showing them that divestment can be done in a measured way. They have no more excuses. Make sure that your messaging is clear in painting this as a first step and not the end all, so as not to set a low standard for other administrations.
  • Capitalize on the momentum generated by your win to grow your campaign. Activate students, faculty and alumni to get involved as you move ahead on campaigning for full divestment.
    • Publish articles in your campus newspaper, faculty newsletters and the alumni publication to educate students, faculty and alumni about your school’s divestment decision, and as a call to action for full divestment.
    • Hold tabling sessions, class raps and events celebrating your win and calling for more action

Steps To Beginning Alumni Organizing

Above are only some of the options campaigns have for integrating alumni talents with campaigns. Due to the different needs and availability of alumni, they may not have the same organizing capacity as students, and may work with the campaign in a different way. In reaching out to alumni to get them involved with your campaign, or to create their own alumni campaign, some initial steps are likely to be needed.

“Alumni have access to the outside world – to capital, to media, to other organizations. They can serve as bridges to spread the message broadly.” - Jess Grady Benson, Pitzer Alumni, Class of ‘14

Form an Alumni Organizing Working Group

A first step in organizing alumni is to create a subgroup, or mini-campaign, to focus specifically on alumni matters. This group can be an area of overlap between students and alumni, and serve as the active body working with alumni campaign efforts. Key steps to creating an effective alumni sub-group include:

  • Identify students who are interested in alumni outreach and engagement and form a working group.
  • Set up a listserv and/or other method of communicating to the alumni sub-group.
  • Plan regular meetings to strategize as a group.
  • Set alumni campaign goals. At the initial meeting, draft a strategic plan identifying goals, milestones, and tasks in advancing the work of the alumni group.
  • Identify and recruit alumni to grow the group and identify alum who will be willing to take leadership roles. Recognize that recently graduated students, especially prior members of the campaign, may be particularly interested in working on some component of the alumni campaign.
  • Create material to engage alumni, as described more fully below.
  • Identify the best method of tracking alumni relationships. Some campaigns may do this in Excel or Google Docs, others may opt for Salesforce, or similar databases.
  • If there is an alumni who is eager to engage early on, it can be helpful to have them co-design the alumni related activities of the divestment campaign, and lead an alumni working group. Be sure to ease alumni into responsibility so the divestment leadership can assess their appropriateness and capacity for the role.

Prepare Presentation and Outreach Materials

Before your alumni campaigns initiate outreach, you must be ready to succinctly communicate about the campaign. It is helpful to create a set of materials in advance to use when communicating about your campaign to prospective alumni volunteers, or other stakeholders, such as media.

  • Intro packet: An intro packet might include a consolidation of your campaign’s web content. For example:
    • An introduction to the concept and logic
    • Summary arguments for divestment at your university
    • FAQs on divestment issues
    • Brief bios of members (if a small team), or of leadership
    • Pictures of your campaign’s events
    • Specifics on what you are asking of Alumni
    Once these documents are assembled, you can keep them for digital outreach or for printed outreach by mail. If different from your website, these materials could also be added to your campaign’s website, as detailed in the Harvard Divest example below.
  • Business cards: Another basic tool for in-person networking and outreach are business cards. These can be printed for little to no cost, and should include your campaign’s logo and contact information.
  • Demeanor and dress: Perhaps obvious, a third, recommendation for networking is a professional demeanor and dress. If meeting people in person, except where obviously unnecessary, business casual is standard. This is particularly pertinent for in-person outreach to alumni over age 40, VIPs, or alumni in the business world.  Similarly, initially treat these alumni as business acquaintances, not as friends; too casual an engagement may be off-putting.

Campaign Visibility and Tools for Alumni

Alumni are more likely to locate, respond to, and become involved with a visible, well-established, clearly organized campaign. By the time a divestment campaign is recruiting alumni, it has likely established many components of the campaign’s digital presence and branding, such as its name and logo, social media accounts, an online petition, and website. If not, these key items are the first priority. These elements can serve as the first or second points of contact for alumni who heard of, and then Googled divestment at their alma mater. These branding items should express the mission of your school’s divestment campaign while remaining accessible, inviting, and credible to the diverse alumni constituency.

Create alumni-specific digital resources

Another way to encourage alumni engagement is to create alumni-specific tools and resources to layer on top of your other web resources, such as an Alumni tab on your campaign’s website. Alumni-specific web resources can help alumni find your campaign online, educate curious alumni, and serving as an intake portal to onboard new recruits. Alumni-branded resources also have more legitimacy on LinkedIn, where recruitment for political activism is not conventional, but alumni groups are.

Creating a separate alumni petition located on your campaign website or on an alumni site is also an important technique to help funnel alumni participation into a specific location, which sets the student campaign up to inform the administration of facts like “We have X number of alumni endorsing divestment…” Finally, giving alumni their own platform gives them the opportunity to network with each other, which is a way the campaign can provide value to participating alum.

Divest Harvard’s website serves as a good example of smartly meeting a variety of needs: background information for people just learning about the cause, media support and contacts, an introduction to the student organizers, a place to raise funds, and more. However, it also provides alumni with their own set of tools.

Recruiting Alumni

This section will go over methods of finding, contacting, and recruiting alum into your campaign.

Where to Find Alumni

Retain graduating members of the campaign

The easiest way to build an alumni group is by forming it from current students in the campaign who graduate. The first step to establishing such infrastructure is to empower willing graduating leaders to start and lead the first alumni working group or committee, to develop standard methods of keeping in touch with each other and the campaign, and to work on a strategic plan for recruiting other alumni peers and contacts.

Personal networks, and those contacts’ networks

Once you have a path in place to transition current campaign members to become alumni leaders, the campaign will need to move into recruiting alumni that are not graduates of the campaign itself. This will mean initially building on ‘warm’ contacts – people already known to the campaigns’ participants. Pursuing new contacts from existing contacts and through warm introductions and referrals is the path of least resistance for getting new alumni involved in the campaign. This is the starting point. The easiest way to assess these connections is by having student campaign members look at their own networks, Facebook friends, and LinkedIn contacts to generate a list of alumni to recruit. This list can form the basis of a recruitment project plan, in which timelines for outreach to familiar alumni are established. At this level, outreach can be simple; an email, a phone call, or other informal communication to explain the project, and to invite engagement. For an example contact, see the model language in the cold call section below.

It is key to effectively track connections, responsibility for outreach, and outreach progress in an Excel spreadsheet, relationship management software, Google Docs, or other tool. When contacts respond, if they respond favorably, one of the first asks can be for contacts and referrals to two of their closest contacts from the university. The warm contacts can either lend their name for your outreach to their contacts, lend their name to “sign” a pre-written email, or make a call introducing you to their contacts. Create a range of options for engagement, and do what they are comfortable doing.

Work with faculty to identify and contact interested alum

Another trove of alumni information are faculty. Students sometimes keep in touch with faculty for years and decades post-graduation, and faculty provide alumni with references, contacts, and referrals. Be sure to expend resources building a faculty coalition as a component of the campaign, then work with those faculty to recruit their favorite alum. Faculty may also have an idea of who has done particularly well since they graduated, and may have a relationship with alumni that have become VIPs.

Contacting Alumni

Once you have identified alum, how do you get in touch with them?

Cold calls

If and when your campaign has absolutely exhausted its personal network, and that network’s networks, and those network’s networks, it may be time for cold calls. Cold calls don’t necessarily refer to calls on the phone, but to unsolicited outreach to a person with whom you do not have a personal connection. There is plenty of data showing that personal connections are much more powerful and effective than cold calls. Thus, the longer your organization can continue to ask personal contacts for referrals, the more efficiently you can recruit alumni. However, when you start to hit a wall, or are missing specific generations or classes in your outreach, it may be time to start pitching to new people.

When making a cold call, work to avoid random contact. Develop some basis for contacting this person, which could take creativity or research on your part. One way of establishing a basis is beginning your communication to them with an explanation of how you located their contact information. Keep the initial contact brief and straightforward. For example:

Hi, my name is XYZ. I received your information from the alumni list (or whatever source) at ABC University. A fossil fuel divestment campaign is underway at ABC university. Visit the campaign’s website to learn more about our goal and how fossil fuel divestment will benefit the university. There, you can sign a petition and read about other ways to get involved.

Thank you for your time and your consideration.



Alumni Coordinator, DivestABC

If your target alum does not respond to the first of these solicitations, perhaps do one follow-up, but then move on.

Obtaining contact information: A key hurdle to getting information for cold calling is getting alumni contact information. Here are some strategies for obtaining alumni contacts.

  • Community leaders: Often, people stay in the area in which they went to college. One place to begin alumni recruitment is with the standouts from this group, who now hold leadership roles in the community. They may be business owners, have buildings named after them, hold local offices, or be otherwise relevant in the community. These people may also be accessible because of a public-facing role. Research on the educational background or politics of local community figures is an easy starting point and should also be done to ensure that you are not wasting time reaching out to a prominent person that is unlikely to be receptive to your message.
  • Google searching: Another way to locate alumni is simply to search online for the phrase ‘graduated from University name XYZ’ or ‘is an alumni of University XYZ.’ This is a fairly random style of searching, but relatively productive, typically returning executives or leaders whose bios are on staff pages, or whose backgrounds have been covered by the media.
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia keeps a list of prominent alumni from top universities that, if living, may provide powerful contacts.
  • Alumni office: Most schools attempt to track all alumni. These lists are often private, but may be accessed by current students in some cases. Inquire with the alumni office if alumni contact information is available for networking, and look online to see if any information is publicly available, or on a searchable database. If you have an ‘in’ with anyone at your school’s development office they may be able to give information about individual donors and other influential alumni. Befriend the staff in these offices, and be savvy about being put in touch with alumni.
  • Student organizations and clubs: Many alumni who were politically, socially, and environmentally active as students lived in co-ops and were members of clubs. If club leaders or the co-op offices don’t feel comfortable releasing contacts to you, provide them with an email template to send through their lists.
  • Attending alumni events: It is a good strategy to raise awareness of your divestment campaign by attending alumni receptions and related events. Look for events such as conferences or talks where influential alumni are either speaking or may be in attendance. Many of these events welcome students; you can check in with your school to see if any are being offered. Many alumni also go to sporting events, or reunions, at which you can set up a table or otherwise outreach to participants.
  • Digital networking via LinkedIn: LinkedIn is also another rich source of alumni connections. On this site, you can both search for and contact alumni. See the steps below for contacting alumni:
    • The first step in using LinkedIn for networking is to build a descriptive, complete, professional-looking profile with a nice photo of yourself in business wear.
    • If possible, sign up for a professional account. A professional LinkedIn account is a cost ($30/month), but it allows you to contact people with whom you do not have a pre-established LinkedIn relationship.
    • The second step is creating a LinkedIn Group for your divestment alumni group. From this group, you have a means of reaching out to alumni whose contact information you do not have, and with whom you do not have a LinkedIn relationship.
    • Use the LinkedIn group to reach out to alum from your school, and then use messaging to contact alumni directly.

Engaging Influential Alumni

Influential alumni can play a key role in adding credibility and legitimacy to your campaign, drawing attention to your campaign, and pressuring your targets to divest. Each campaign is uniquely situated in terms of who has influence over its targets, but alumni with influence generally include high-level donors, celebrities, academics, politicians, and financial, business, or other community leaders. Research famous or important alumni from your school, and develop a list of the most important alumni to whom you might reach out or initiate discussions.  Once the list is prepared, reaching out to influential alumni can be straightforward:

  • Draft a well-written letter briefly describing how the merits of the campaign comports with the VIP’s public positions, and request a public endorsement. Include your printed outreach materials. Have the letter explain how their endorsing the divestment campaign works in their best interest. Confirm receipt of the letter package by phone a few days after expected arrival, ask if you can help with any questions, or seek an answer to your request. This straightforward approach can yield surprisingly effective results, and helped Yale’s divestment campaign gain support from politicians.
  • Another option is to reach out to the target VIP’s staff. Most politicians, executives, or otherwise prominent figures work with personal assistants, office managers, or other staff who serve as the gateway to accessing the VIP and his or her calendar. Getting to know the staff working with your target influential alumni can be very helpful.
  • Talk to staff about the campaign, how it fits into the target alumni’s work, and how supporting it could benefit them.
    • Ask the staff’s advice about how to best approach or reach your target alumni to discuss the campaign.
    • If you feel you have developed a rapport with this staff person, invite them to  coffee and work to build the relationship.
    • Once the relationship is in a constructive place, ask if they can help you get an audience with the target alumni.
  • A final method of reaching influential alumni, depending on their use of social media, would be reaching out to them via their Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts. Tagging target VIP alum in your posts risks being labeled as spam, but may be rewarded by retweets or responses. This method is better deployed as a second-stage tactic after first sending your introductory print materials to your target.
Next Section: Once You’ve Recruited Alumni