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Tips on Leadership Program Alumni Network Efforts

Many leadership programs would like to see the graduates of their programs remain connected after they complete their program.  A leadership program’s graduate network can be a source of peer learning, continuing education, collaboration, joint action, career advancement or a resource for the program itself.  I am excited to see programs experimenting with how to support these networks and wanted to spark a conversation about what groups are learning and share three early tips and cautions on network purpose, the difference between a service approach and network approach and when inclusion becomes exclusive.

Be clear on purpose:  The most important place to start is with the purpose of the network.  As I mentioned there are many potential benefits of being connected and a leadership network may have multiple purposes.  For example, people may want to remain connected because they are all working on a specific issue, like early education or in a particular geography like Fresno, and they see the value in being able to collaborate or mobilize the network to take action.  Of course they will likely also share information and resources but the clear motivation for connecting is that participants believe that through this network they will be learning and acting more effectively on the common issue they care about.  It may be helpful to ask if the purpose of the network is aligned with the purpose of the leadership program.  A common refrain of leadership programs is “leadership for what?” and this applies to networks as well.  

When programs staff alumni initiatives and the network’s purpose is not front and center, building the network itself can become the goal rather than the approach through which a group is working to achieve its purpose of mobilizing action on affordable housing or producing innovation in alternative energy financing.  This can be a fuzzy difference that shows up in a couple of ways: working at the lowest common denominator, drifting from a network to a service approach and inclusion that becomes exclusive.

Understand the difference between a service and network approach: Graduates are often accustomed to being supported by program staff and many alumni network staff and volunteers are used to leading in an organizational context of providing services.  This explains how alumni efforts can drift to a service approach.  It can be hard to shift the expectations of both staff and participants of an alumni network effort that the purpose is not mainly to continue providing individual development opportunities but to encourage participants to themselves take initiative and drive the connections with each other around common learning interests or opportunities for joint work or action.  Those who are leading the network need to model connecting people and watch out for becoming ‘connection central’, i.e. the people to call if you want to find someone in the network who can help you with a problem.   Staff will never be able to follow what everyone is up to and need to encourage people in the network to reach out to the communicate with others in network themselves when they need help or are looking for resources.

From a service model perspective, those who are trying to support alumni networks often look for activities that will have the broadest appeal or try to anticipate a range of offerings so that there will be something for everyone. What may be most familiar are continuing education opportunities which extend some of the benefits of the leadership development program to graduates. The continuing education activities can be a good engagement strategy if they are a path of involving people in the work of the network to advance its purpose and not just a service provided to alumni.  Those who are supporting alumni networks will have more success if they can resist the urge to do the heavy lifting to make things happen and focus instead on reinforcing the network’s purpose, coaching and fostering a network culture that encourages people in the network to take chances, initiate action and learn. A network has the capacity to organize itself when people in the network feel authorized or empowered to reach out to each other about things they are passionate about.

I have heard people leading networks say, “Not all of our members are interested in policy work or it might be a topical issue like immigration or policy brutality.”  That’s okay, in a network small groups of people who have a shared passion for an issue can find each other. If there are a handful of people who want to take initiative to organize clusters of people who do want to learn or act together this will help the network achieve its purpose.  People are attracted to a network when things are happening.  The energy created by a learning initiative or cool project will create more energy in the network than trying to work at the lowest common denominator. 

Pay attention to when inclusion becomes exclusive:  The tendency mentioned earlier to want to find the thing that is broadly appealing to everyone often comes from a desire to be inclusive.  In fact, some alumni networks refer to each other as “family”.  This is the sauce that creates strong ties.  It’s important and it can also become exclusive.  As the network makes progress on whatever issue or issues participants are interested in, it will hopefully attract the attention of people who may not have been through the leadership program but want to be part of work on housing, education or whatever the network has taken up.  This is a good thing and a tough issue for alumni networks that have formed out of leadership programs.  This is also a good time to revisit the purpose of the network.  It is to be a bounded network of people with a shared leadership experience or a network of people who are passionate about tackling tough social problems.