Networking is more than mingling at an alumni reunion. In the Creating Connection Webinar hosted and organized by Aluminati, earlier this week, I navigated a journey of building a networking mindset for the next generation of students, graduates, and alumni.

I started the event by asking the simple question:

Why do we want our students and alumni to network?

The one-word answers from the audience surprised me:  connection, belonging, opportunity, fun and so on. I anticipated instrumental words like career or job. These thoughtful responses in the realm of exploring, discovery, development, and learning move networking from the traditional view of a transactional activity (‘I am looking for a job’) to the transformational one (‘I am exploring and open to learning more’).

We are all aware of how networking has been democratized over the last few years. The COVID lockdowns accelerated this process, making virtual connections more acceptable and accessible. However, virtual networking also creates incredible overwhelm. There are so many people (alumni!) out there it’s difficult to know where to start. Tools like alumni online communities and LinkedIn are essential to drive networking activity. Students and alumni need to know how to use these tools. We need to equip them with strategies and skills to maximize the experience and be motivated to leverage these opportunities  (and overcome the overwhelm).

For the highly engaged alumni, career and advancement professionals and alumni leaders assembled on the Webinar, I offered a four-part framework to building this transformational, next generation networking mindset.

The framework draws on the four key traits I highlight in my book The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment. The traits—reflection, curiosity, passion, and generosity—are essential to create alumni as active global citizens and leaders in our institutions, our communities, and our world.

Here’s the four key questions I shared in the session to help you to build next generation networking for impact in your institution:

Question 1- Reflection: How can you create low stakes networking experiences for students and recent grads?

The earlier we integrate networking experiences the better. An element of reflection on these early experiences is the ideal, possibly through a reflective prompts or a flash evaluation after an event. Reflection allows students and recent graduate to improve and hone their networking skills. Check out The Alumni Way Workbook, a free download that includes all the activities from the book – with plenty of reflective questions!

Question 2- Curiosity: How do you build a networking culture that focuses on mutual value?

Effective networking is fueled by curiosity. Students and alumni need the chance to ask curious questions to fellow alumni with interesting careers/life paths. Offering these experiences of mentorship or even information interviews can often rely on the same dedicated alumni to get involved again and again. They are the alumni mentors, recruiters, guest speakers, advisors, and reps on committees.

By building mutual value in the institution’s networking culture two things can happen. First, our institutions create a kind, intentional stewardship plan for these super alumni, to foster their leadership and combat volunteer/mentor fatigue.

Second, embedding this culture means our institutions make a conscious effort to seek new alumni to get involved in opportunities – and these new alumni get to the chance to build their networks (and their Alumni Capital – flows of people, knowledge, and resources they are connected to) in the process. A networking culture that intentionally seeks this diversity and broadened involvement also (surprise, surprise!) increases alumni engagement! Ta-da!

Question 3-  Passion: How can your programmes and policies encourage diversity and passion-driven networking?

Your institution’s core values are crucial to a networking mindset. Infuse these values in your networking initiatives – so the activities are distinctly from your institution (more than just your brand but the feeling behind the brand!). These events should also encourage students and alumni to recognize that their life passions outside of their academic/professional self will propel the building of their network to align to their own values. A big plus is that passion mobilizes alumni to action. If this action can translate into a regular networking habit like an Alumni Friday all the better!

Question 4- Generosity: How do you create meaningful ways for students/ recent grads to give back and find/BE relatable role models?

Networking is giving more than you take. The common pushback from students and recent grads is “what can I give back, I’m only a student/grad?” So much! If we encourage our students and alumni to ask the question “How can I help you?” (and remind our mentors and seasoned alumni to anticipate the question) who knows what might be unearthed? And it’s also not just a direct give-take scenario: our alumni are part of a wider ecosystem with prospective students, current students, fellow alumni, even alumni who are parents that would benefit from new grad insights.

Moreover, building purposeful networking experiences that encourage involvement by relatable role models – whether they are seasoned alumni, recent grads or even students are imperative. This is the key enabler for broader and inclusive involvement.

This final section also links to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a ‘to do’ list for the world—from climate change to reducing inequalities to sustainable communities and quality education (and so much more!). With so many of our institutions part of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings or the new QS Sustainability Rankings, I include this bonus impact question:

Bonus! What would it be like if your institution, underpinned by sustainability and EDI values, put the SDGs into action to mobilize your students and alumni networking?

Imagine alumni affinity groups formed around individual SDG goals or events led by faculty researchers or alumni trailblazers contributing to these global challenges. This is an incredible opportunity to bring our institution’s ecosystem of students, alumni, faculty, staff, community together to share their curiosity, passion, expertise to these topics – and yes to network! Networking for impact!

If we start this process early, with our students and recent graduates, embedding the value of involving alumni across our institutions – networking will happen naturally, intentionally, and most importantly for impact – individual, institutional and society impact! Oh, the possibilities!

Curious to explore Next Generation Networking the Alumni Way workshops, the new Impact Alumni Programme or embedding the SDGs in your alumni strategy? Let’s talk! Reach out and connect – networking begins here!

p.s. You can also join the Alumni Friday newsletter a weekly Alumni Way energy boost!