Alumni Networks in Action: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
An enthusiastic group of alumni network managers recently gathered during the Conenza Alumni Program Summit (CAPS) at a private ranch in Montana for a series of knowledge-sharing sessions. The two-day event was filled with inspiring talks, shared learnings, networking, actionable takeaways, relaxing dinners and star gazing in Big Sky Country.
In one of the sessions, Andrea Voytko from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shared an overview of the organization’s Alumni Network that launched in 2014.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Alumni Network
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is “guided by the belief that all lives have equal value.” The foundation supports initiatives in more than 100 countries that “create opportunity for all people to lead healthy, productive lives.” The focus in developing countries is on hunger, extreme poverty and improving children’s health.
In 2014, the organization launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Alumni Network with a singular goal: to deepen the connection between the foundation, its employees, and its alumni around a shared vision so that the foundation and its alumni can have an even greater impact in the sector and their fields together than they would alone.
Strategic launch for long-term success
From the onset the Alumni Network had strong executive sponsorship, starting with CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann, who encourages the alumni team to try new things and take risks. The first year of the program was devoted to growing the network through person-to-person connections and direct outreach. Andrea Voytko, the Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation who leads the BMGF Alumni Network, is a natural connector and built the network around helping to develop meaningful relationships.
She contributes to new employee orientation, speaks about the Alumni Network in the onboarding process and personally reaches out during the exit process once an employee gives notice. The goal is to span the entire employee lifecycle from their first day on the job to when they may eventually become an alumnus and start a new professional chapter elsewhere.
As an extension of the foundation’s culture, the Alumni Network takes an inclusive approach. All full-time employees who left in good standing, including interns and Gates Fellows whose tenure at the foundation is limited, are invited to join the Alumni Network. The aspiration is to engage these individuals in the foundation’s mission for the long-term and support talent development for both the Gates Foundation and partners. By 2017, the Alumni Network grew to 1,400 members, an impressive 76% of all former employees with members in 38 countries.
Reaching out across the globe
With a strong membership in place, Voytko turned her focus to engaging members globally and building a program with staying power that provides value to both alumni and the foundation. Given the global nature of the network, the alumni team employs a number of tactics to engage all the members where they are, including: online platform, regular email, alumni-led events, foundation-led events and shared resources.
Over three years, Voytko built a strong network of supporters to help engage members globally and facilitate connections through a 17-member Alumni Advisory Board and over 200 Alumni Ambassadors that help provide strategic guidance and serve as leaders, supporters and evangelists.
As the Alumni Network has evolved, the tactics are focused in three core areas:
- Global reach and engagement – reaching and connecting members formally and informally wherever they are in the world
- Strategic initiatives and talent – leveraging the expertise, skill and relationships of alumni
- Infrastructure and sustainability – building and maintaining the Alumni Network to be a long-term asset of the foundation
Long term, the foundation aims to develop a cadre of highly-engaged ambassadors who can speak knowledgeably about initiatives and outcomes, serve as effective recruiters, or return themselves as boomerang employees.
In three short years, the Alumni Network has made huge leaps and bounds towards foundation goals as proven by the annual alumni surveys showing significant year-over-year increases in the percentage of alumni who report they:
- Are more inclined to refer friends/colleagues to the foundation for employment
- Feel better equipped to answer questions about the foundation, its mission, and its work
- Feel connected to the foundation as a result of belonging to the Alumni Network
- Would recommend the Alumni Network to others
In 2015 when the BMGF announced a yearlong parental leave program, the Alumni Network played an important role helping to recruit former employees with the right skill sets to backfill some positions. Additionally, job referrals are a tangible way alumni can continue to contribute to the mission of the Gates Foundation and are rewarded with charitable gift cards for referrals and new hires.
This Alumni Network serves as an extension of the BMGF family and a launching pad for alumni to connect to each other, to the foundation, and to a greater cause of making the world a better place. Monthly updates show the heart of the Alumni Network with family news, cute baby and pet photos, new jobs and hobbies, inspirational quotes and book launches, travel tips, and loads of photos with smiling groups of alumni having fun together – volunteering, enjoying happy hours, taking selfies in airports and museums. The connections built through the Alumni Network are invaluable for its members and the foundation.
One alumna’s feeling about the program reflects feedback from a broad swath of members, “[The Alumni Network] has tangibly resulted in introductions, consulting projects and job interviews, but more importantly [it has given me] a feeling of community and the opportunity to be with kindred spirits who share the same passions and who serve as guiding lights!”