Online Exclusive: Promoting Meaning to Effectively Engage Parents and Alumni

Winter 2019

By Marc Steren

Despite the University of Michigan’s famous school spirit and large alumni base, in 2007, alumni enthusiasm had plateaued and donations were down. Moreover, morale at the student call center, which was tasked with facilitating alumni gifts, was at an all-time low. So, the university brought in well-known organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant to both boost morale at the call center and increase alumni giving.
Grant’s solution? Bring in past recipients of financial aid to speak to the call-center students, who could then see the real meaning of these financial donations—how they affected the lives of their peers. The student workers now also had powerful stories to relay to the alumni base.
The results were incredible: Students began spending 142 percent more time on the phone with potential donors, and revenue increased by 172 percent. Grant’s ability to help the university connect meaning to individual giving was the major factor in this success story.
In 2014, The Bullis School (MD) decided to use the power of meaning as the framework for its entrepreneurship program, which builds students’ life skills—growth mindset, grit, and resilience—while teaching them about entrepreneurship. To better serve the students, we designed the program to take advantage of the experience and expertise of our alumni and parents.
This two-part framework—student meaning and parent/alumni engagement—has not only helped build and strengthen our school community, but has also increased philanthropic activity.

Promoting Student Meaning 

Our entrepreneurship program divides the participating students into five teams. Each team goes through the entrepreneurship process, from designing its own concept to creating the full user experience. The program ends in a Shark Tank-style pitch competition in which the winning team receives $10,000 (thanks to part of a parent gift to the program) to pursue its business idea. Last year’s winner, Rockabyebackpack, a diaper bag that converts into a changing station, recently shipped over $4,000 in product.
Though not all teams pursue their concepts after high school, many students do. In college, our alumni have gone on to win grants and gain customers. For example, Vana Learning, a tutoring and coaching software, won Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s Do Good award, and Kanga Trash Solutions, which allows event-goers to dispose of their trash in a bag attached to their seat instead of on the ground, won grants at the University of Maryland.
Students have had continued success with these businesses because they were not just part of a class they took at Bullis but a meaningful experience. Former students continually tell our department how the program inspired them, helped them choose specific majors, and provided them with the life skills to thrive in college.

Engaging Parents and Alumni 

I was hired six months before I started teaching, which enabled me to write the program based on my business experience and existing college programs. From the start, I spent a lot of time talking to entrepreneurs, parents, and alumni to get their feedback, recruit mentors and speakers, and improve the program based on their business experiences.
There are many opportunities to learn from parents about what they want to achieve for their child’s education. Understanding what “outcomes” are important for their children helps me align classes with their goals. My major obstacle is ensuring that speakers “fit” at the right time and that each speaker gives a lesson we can apply to the students’ concepts. The engagement is so overwhelming, and every year, more qualified and talented parents and alumni step forward to mentor students. I never turn away volunteers, so it is a massive undertaking to make sure that there is “value” to every offer. I receive more requests for mentors than I need, so many of these volunteers become speakers about a topic they are passionate about or they contribute to the program in another capacity.
In addition to sharing their expertise with students, the volunteers feel like active participants of the school community, and they truly are. For example, one attorney helps students incorporate their businesses, while another works with students on their intellectual property. Parents and alumni volunteer their expertise on negotiating, building sales funnels, scaling, SEO, educational marketing, diversity, and venture capital. They also offer internships to students. In fact, one student startup developed the “Student Internship Network,” which helps connect students with potential internships offered by alumni and parents.

Meaning and Engagement in Action

Not only are parents and alumni sharing their invaluable expertise with students, they are also feeling inspired to financially support our program and school. Below are just a few examples of what has happened as we’ve mixed meaning and engagement.
One parent-mentor was an active member of the Young Professional Organization (YPO), a renowned global organization that helps chief executives learn and grow. He was so impressed with our program, and how he was able to contribute to it, that he asked to meet to find out how he could do more. This led to a YPO event at our school, a personal donation, and he became a student recruiter. He has done all of this not just because he’s a parent but an active member of the Bullis community.
Another parent, who saw how others were engaging with the program, called me to find out how he could contribute to it. As an experienced entrepreneur, he knew that a lack of initial funding can keep even the best business ideas from getting off the ground. He agreed to underwrite the “shark tank” award for 10 consecutive years (a $100,000 gift) and gave the school an additional $10,000 gift for general purposes.
And finally, parents of two students involved in the program gave the school keystone gifts of $5 million dollars each to help fund the Discovery Center, a 70,000-square-foot building for STEM, entrepreneurship, and the arts that we announced we would build at the inception of the entrepreneurship program. Because their children participated in the program, the parents had a direct window into our carefully developed work in entrepreneurship.
Beyond the entrepreneurship program, we have continued our outreach to alumni and parents. In coordination with the principal and tech coordinator, we are building an adult education program for parents and alumni because learning never stops. Our first workshop, on habits and productivity, was well-received.
We have been able to build a wonderful ecosystem where parents and alumni add true value—both programmatically and financially—to the student body. Your school can do the same. The first step is to ensure that what you are offering is meaningful to all involved.
Marc Steren

Marc Steren is the founding director of entrepreneurship at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.