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University-Industry Engagement Week

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Rutgers alumni initiative brings engagement programs to the workplace

A detailed article on Rutgers University’s workplace-based alumni engagement effort appears the April issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

A growing number of universities are including a strong focus on alumni involvement as a key part of their overall corporate engagement efforts. In the majority of these programs, efforts have targeted collaborations with alumni employers to increase philanthropy, grow industry-sponsored research, and foster other partnerships benefitting university activities. But at Rutgers University, the initiative known as the Rutgers Alumni Workplace Engagement (AWE) has shifted the focus away from making things happen on campus to engendering new programming at the workplace of the industry partner.

“For years, we have traditionally reached out and asked alumni to share their expertise, give money, come back to the university,” says John Borgese, director of alumni workplace engagement. “Ours is the exact opposite; we bring the university to the workplace.”

AWE is seen as a way to reach out to alumni in a more comfortable environment. “It starts to build bridges between alumni, companies as a whole, and universities as a whole,” says Borgese.

In some ways, he continues, the concept was born out of necessity. In the traditional alumni programs, he notes, “you develop the program, you go to the company, you meet all the top executives who may be your alumni, but you have all these individual silos. Senior leadership of the foundation engages with the highest alumni in the organization, but as with so many different academic units, each one has their own director of development. What happens if after initial meetings occur, there is not this one universal accountability factor built in where you had a person or department that goes and leverages those programs and builds relationships with the company and acts as a single contact?”

When Borgese took his position in September 2018, “they had already done the research” in terms of identifying alumni in corporate positions, he shares. “What I needed to do was work with my immediate supervisor and fine-tune things. We looked at the list of companies and quickly identified 20 within a 50-mile radius that [combined] had over 24,000 alumni working for them.”

Noting that a “team of one” could not possibly attack all 20, he pared his targets down to four or five workable companies. The criteria included: a critical mass of alumni, a history of philanthropy (whether at the individual or organizational level), existing partnerships or relationships from the organization back into the university, and whether significant research had been conducted with the university.

“Each academic unit or center worked in their own lanes, and we wanted to leverage those — not to take them over, but to enhance them,” Borgese adds. “We also wanted to see if these companies had matching gift programs. I’m not a fundraiser, but I open doors for more fundraising to occur.”

Borgese conducted a good deal of internal research with the help of the IT research team. “I did a lot on LinkedIn, and then submitted a request to our research team and cross-checked names,” he shares. This helps, for example, to identify career moves that take an alumnus from one company to another. “It helped clean up our database as well,” he says.

Next, Borgese categorized the alumni according to their level of engagement. “When we identified alumni that were a little more engaged, I connected to the prospect manager; I had to ‘sell’ my ideas to my internal colleagues — to have my internal partners see the value of the vision as well, and how it might benefit them,” he explains.

When the time came to reach out to the alumni, Borgese leaned on his years of experience in corporate sales and sales team leadership. “I took the same approach — focus on customer experience,” he says. “I asked questions, like what are some of the objectives that the alumni within the company want to achieve? If I helped them achieve them, it would help build a bridge back to Rutgers.” The common themes of programs he offered to the companies fell into four pillars:

  • Networking
  • Mentoring
  • Professional/career development
  • Talent acquisition

“We targeted specific organizations to develop this programming internally — within the companies,” Borgese explains. “We focused on small wins within that company, by identifying what their objectives were within each pillar. What I try to do is become that bridge — a ‘master LEGO builder’ — to make those connections back to the university.”

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