Charting a Bold New Course for the Georgia State University (GSU) Alumni Association: A Case Study in Strategic Planning

Most alumni organizations today recognize that in order to meet their long-term goals and objectives in an effective and efficient way, they must have a plan to follow—a map to lead them to their desired destination. Whether an association is considering development of their first strategic plan like GSU was, or is a veteran of several completed plans, the process can be a daunting one.

Brad Ferrer
2009-2012 President, GSU Alumni Association
Brad is immediate past president of the GSU Alumni Association, and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration at Cable News Network. Mr. Ferrer led the association during the development of the GSU Alumni Association strategic plan.

Christina Million
Exectuive Director, GSU Alumni Association
Christina serves as the Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations and Executive Director of the GSU Alumni Association.

Note: Mr. Ferrer, Ms. Million, and Dr. Lee Patouillet  of Patouillet Consulting LLC are presenting a session on the GSU Alumni Association Strategic Planning Process: Challenges and Opportunities at the CASE III Conference—Atlanta, GA in February, 2013.

Patouillet Consulting LLC assisted Georgia State University in developing its newly implemented strategic plan. Christina Million (CM) and Brad Ferrer (BF) answer questions about the plan and the process.

1.    Why did you do a strategic plan for the Georgia State University Alumni Association?

BF: We wanted to tie our planning efforts to the GSU Strategic Plan; so once the school’s plan was ratified by the University Senate during early 2011, we began our planning efforts so we could align our mission, values and vision with the university’s strategic plan.

CM: Since the GSU Alumni Association had never completed a strategic plan, it was perfect timing to develop one to provide direction for the entire organization and to support the university’s goals.

2.    What role did your consultant play in assisting you in developing the plan?

CM: PCLLC was integral to the process. Lee helped direct us and kept us focused on the common goal. It is easy to get lost in details and forget the big picture, and he was able to keep everything on track. He provided great examples and materials to spark conversation and discussion. Also, his expertise was invaluable, and he provided great insight in the most effective way to present ourselves and the completed plan. Lee made my job so much easier, and I am thankful for all his guidance from start to finish.

BF: Our consultant was a key facilitator who had a broad range of very relevant experience. His experience was invaluable as options were considered and context for decision-making was needed.

 3.    What kind of process did you use to develop your plan?

CM: We wanted a lot of input from the association’s key stakeholders, so they would be invested in the plan. We started with a retreat for the full board, and then worked with a strategic planning committee within the board. The University President and the VP for Development and Alumni Affairs provided input to make sure it would correlate well with the university. The timing was great, and it lent plenty of opportunity for input.

BF: It was important to build in sufficient time to allow for data-gathering, debate and discussion, and follow-up research in order to have a more fully supported final proposal.

4. How did you involve the staff and board in this process?

BF: We depended upon the staff to complete much of the detailed work, including discussion preparation, research, and initial proposals—all of which facilitated board discussion. The board was engaged throughout the process to provide guidance to the staff, consider the initial staff proposals, recommend their own proposals, and ultimately approve the work product from each phase.

5. How did your plan relate to the university’s goals and objectives?

CM:  It relates closely to the university’s goals and objectives, which was the point of the entire process. The university is the reason we exist, so we should all be working for common goals and objectives. Our plan represents that well, and we can definitely benchmark plan to plan to see how we are succeeding.

6. How did you involve the alumni population in general in this process?

CM: As part of the strategic planning process, we conducted the first comprehensive alumni survey in the history of the university. We did separate surveys to university alumni and to faculty/staff alumni. We had 4556 responses, which was over 12% for the two groups. We were very pleased with the phenomenal response rate. We got great information that can be used for programming and events, and it has already been incorporated in a number of things we are doing. By listening to our alumni, we can determine what we really need to be striving to do in order to be good stewards of our alumni base.

7. What were some of your key findings from your alumni survey?

BF: We received very helpful guidance on alumni priorities, which were segregated by key demographics, and also on alumni attitudes towards GSU, which should prove helpful in the development effort.

CM: Specific findings included:

  • Equity of degree is a core driver for alumni.
  • Career services are important to our alumni.
  • Targeted communications focusing on successful outcomes are needed.
  • We must continue to focus on improved public opinion of GSU and the association as source of information about GSU.
  • We should build campus coalitions around alumni by sharing and discussing data.

8.   What were some of the benefits of developing this plan?

BF: This plan gives the GSU Alumni Association specific focus when establishing goals, it aligns the association’s plan with the larger university plan which is essential to success, and it helped unify the board in reaching consensus regarding plan specifics.

9.   What were some of the challenges in creating your plan and how did you address them?

CM: It is difficult to gain consensus on the importance of an organization from a large number of people. There were many different points of view regarding why the association exists and how it should operate in serving the alumni of GSU. The first few meetings were necessary to craft the message, and then the rest of the plan could follow. Once there was consensus on the actual message of the organization, it was easier to understand what to highlight in the plan.

10. What advice would you have for others contemplating the development of a strategic plan for their alumni association?                                            

BF: It is essential to tie this planning process to the university’s planning process, to fully engage the board in the development of the plan, and to also involve the alumni population in the plan.

CM: When people have been heard in the process, they are much more likely to believe in the plan, take ownership of it, and live by it. The strategic planning process was also of great benefit to the alumni staff because they worked toward essential organizational goals, and now they will be able to see the results and track our progress.