The Board Was What?

“Disbanded,” was the answer to my question.

Despite the alumni board being disbanded shortly before I accepted my new job at the university, by the time I concluded my service there the alumni association had been re-formed, bridges built, fences mended, donors cultivated, new awards developed, people honored and celebrated, stories shared, volunteer service expanded…all despite the president being willing at the time to let the association be closed down completely.  There was also on-campus resistance to alumni activities.  What was the secret to the turnaround?  A diligent focus on five phases of an ongoing process…a process that can be used for any volunteer board and membership group such as nonprofits, chambers of commerce and more.

Not long after I arrived, I met with the alumni and community relations team…three people assigned the task of rebuilding the situation with 35,000 alumni as well as engage a community.  The team needed focus and it needed a method of prioritizing strategies and tactics options.  It was during this meeting that I presented what came to be known as CESEA (no, we didn’t try to pronounce it, but the letters appeared on notes, strategic plans, meeting documents and more).

Contact, engage, serve, empower and acknowledge” became more than just a sequence; it became a system that drew in alumni and community members in ways that attracted new friends and further engaged existing ones.  Almost every breath, every action, every plan and every communique was within the five steps of CESEA.  Many benefits were derived by commitment to the process:  loyalty, respect, retention, philanthropy and more.

Always consider that each step leads to the next, is connected to the previous one, and creates an ever-expanding range of activity.  There is no end to the process; it goes deeper and broader over time.

Contact can take many forms, and it should always be genuine, sincere and attentive to whom the message is being communicated.  Remembering “it is not about us” when crafting an email, placing a call, enjoying a visit, delivering a proposal, inviting to an event, etc., provides an important focus to the message, including its comments and timing.

When I took on the role at the university, I asked my team to introduce me first to those who were most upset with the new circumstances regarding the changes.  To say that those were interesting lunch meetings would be an understatement, but those contacts had to be made quickly, honestly and openly.  I invited those alumni to share whatever they wanted, and they took advantage of the invitation.  I’m glad they did.

Consider all the types of contact and how they fit together, ranging from media releases to invitations, unexpected appreciation letters to formalized receipt letters, birthday cards and online personal columns.  It all adds up.  And it often leads to the next phase.

When making contact, include an opportunity for engagement.  Is there an opportunity for the reader to respond by answering a question or submitting their own story?  Are they being invited to an event that provides them value instead of just showing up because the organization wants/needs them to?  Are there opportunities for volunteering or becoming involved?  Is there a strategy to engage them in more areas or levels of the organization as the cycle and system plays out over time?  Is the opportunity to engage strictly for the organization’s benefit, or does it benefit the person?

I recall while serving at another university an important conversation with a potential member of the Board of Visitors that the dean wanted me to establish.  The alumnus reminded me that people of his status and ilk are interested in opportunities that allow them to be involved, but also allow for business opportunities for them.  No matter the level or type of engagement, remember that there should always be value to the person being engaged.

Give before ask.  Always serve before asking for the service of others.  Incorporate the concept throughout your organization.  When your team members answer the phone, do they introduce themselves and say “How can I help you today?”  Consider the main needs of your audiences in all activities.  I recall telling a professor, “We will work to help alumni fall in love with the university instead of just remembering it, and the rest will take care of itself.”  Love is a form of service, and service is an act of love. Empower service.

To empower someone is to show respect for them, belief in them and trust in their decision making.  It can be a risk, but it is a worthwhile.  Empower a board, but give it guidance; empower volunteers by letting them see more of the big picture and their role in it.  Don’t just place volunteers in places to “do work,” but give them opportunities to grow and flourish.  One of the greatest tools of empowerment is knowledge, i.e., about overall plans, methods of operation, etc.  No need to burden them with minutia, but empower them with information that empowers their talent and actions.

Honor service and time by saying thank you; honor accomplishments with awards or recognition in front of peers; honor commitment with thanks and appreciation.  There is no shortage of ways to say thank you, but always and in all ways be sincere, appreciative and genuine.  If others in the audience know what you are about to say, it may be time to rethink how you show appreciation and acknowledge the efforts of others.  Send cards, use photos, place calls.  Talk about who your honorees really are and don’t just read from their résumé.

Years ago, at another university, I sent a small photo album to a donor to let her know how the ranch that she donated looked since she was unable to come to the city where the university and ranch were.  I hadn’t been there long and had only just recently met her.  A few days after I mailed the images, she called and was crying…with joy.  She had feared the university had forgotten her and the importance of her gift.

Never be formulaic or cookie cutter when acknowledging others, however formal or informal the action is.



An interesting side note about this process.  It works for your team members, too.  Empower growth and success at all times with these steps repeated over and over.


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