May 2, 2012 / 3:06 PM / 5 years ago

Squeezing value from your alumni club

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a senior at the College of Charleston, Marshall Simmonds knew where he wanted to work: Blackbaud, a local company that provides software and services for nonprofit organizations.

But he didn't know anyone at the company, and he wasn't sure where to start. So he asked his school's alumni association to connect him with other Charleston grads at the company.

The group introduced him to two Blackbaud employees who had gone to the college, and they walked him through the application and interviews that resulted in an offer. By the time he graduated, the 23 year old had a great job lined up -- and a couple of new mentors.

College alumni associations aren't just for tailgating and fund-raising anymore. These campus-based groups, anxious to pull in the Simmonds of the world and not just their grandfathers, have expanded their offerings significantly in recent years.

In the last three years, for example, the percentage of alumni groups offering former students access to campus gyms, libraries and student centers has grown by 14 percent; 82 percent of alumni groups now keep those campus doors open for graduates. Alumni organizations now offer everything from mock job interviews to discounted moving services, temporary health insurance, campus activity cards and youth-focused snowboarding trips.

There is scant evidence that these new programs are winning new members. Executives at associations that require new members to pay dues (they don't offer a free year to new grads), say their join rates have remained flat for years at roughly a one-fifth of new graduates.

But they are noticing that those schools that bolster their offerings see more engaged members. For example, Northwestern University and University of Michigan alumni groups said participation in activities aimed at young members has increased 50 percent since 2008.

NEW SERVICES, NEW CHOICES

Ten years ago, alumni associations typically focused on getting grads back on campus rather than offering career advancement opportunities, says Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based professional association. "A lot of associations shifted their emphasis on providing more career development," she said.

At the University of Michigan, alums can now take advantage of most career-related offerings without heading back to Ann Arbor, says Dave Schueler, vice president of engagement and program delivery at Michigan's alumni association. "A lot of what we do is virtual, like live-streaming of events or call-ins where people can ask questions during their lunch hour," he said, noting that the association has 43,000 LinkedIn members.

To engage younger alumni, Northwestern University's alumni association added an administrator dedicated to young alumni and graduating seniors 10 years ago. It's added features like an affordable ski trip aimed at younger members.

CHERRY PICKING

The challenge for young alumni club members is to make the most of those connections without spending too much time and money on insurance pitches and fund-raising requests. Here are some ways to make sure you make the most of those new services.

-- Become a gym rat. If your alumni group allows you to continue working out at school and you're not moving away, take advantage of that. You may save money on gym memberships even if you have to pay for the alumni benefits.

-- Network for fun and profit. When Mina Alsaraf, 26, graduated from Purdue University and moved to New Jersey for a pharmacy fellowship at Bristol-Myers Squibb two years ago, she already had the fellowship but was worried about meeting new friends and colleagues. She reached out to the local chapter of Purdue's alumni group, and the president introduced her to two fellow Purdue grads who worked at the company. "It instantly gives you a network to tap into," says the clinical pharmacist.

She suggests grads who are moving to strange cities go to happy hours and other networking events, and leave their resumes at home. It's about the people connections, not the hard sell.

Don't limit your networking to people in the same field as you, especially if you went to a smaller school.

-- Career build. Your alumni association may offer high-level career services such as resume help and interview practice. Some alumni groups are offering continuing education opportunities like classes in web design or business management.

-- Get active to boost your resume. You can use your own alumni volunteer work to hone leadership skills that will position you for more senior roles at work, says Stephanie Capell, 36, a human resources coordinator who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1999. She now volunteers to host dinners and participates in career fairs on behalf of the alumni association. "It's a stepping stone," said Capell.

-- Go for discounts. The first deal might be the alumni association itself. Many schools offer new grads one year of free or reduced-price memberships. Once you join, take time to sort through what's available. Lesser-known offerings like temporary health insurance for out-of-work alumni and moving services have become more popular, says Michigan's Schueler. Other typical discounts offered through alumni groups include test prep material (for would-be grad students), theater tickets, vacations and, of course, insurance.

-- Comparison shop. Don't just buy insurance because your alumni association offers it, even if you have warm memories of those tailgates and your closet is full of school sweatshirts. The alumni groups typically make money selling these products, so make sure the offerings stack up before you buy anything. If you're not sure, you can ask your network.

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own. This is one of a six-story package on graduation)

Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and Steve Orlofsky

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