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.
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.
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.
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.
As established professionals, alumni may be able to bring a broader net of connections to the campaign.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
This section will go over methods of finding, contacting, and recruiting alum into your 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.
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.
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.
Once you have identified alum, how do you get in touch with them?
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.
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: