This hurricane season saw tremendous destruction wrought by both hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Hurricane Harvey alone destroyed nearly 40,000 homes in the Houston area. At times like these, those with well-formed social consciences ask themselves, “what can I do to help?” For many, this will mean donating to disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross. For others, it may mean volunteering in a shelter. For those in the trenches, it may mean rescuing a neighbor or helping someone begin picking up the pieces. The heart of responsible philanthropy is assessing what one can do to help relative to one’s circumstances and available resources.

So it is with alumni relations/development work. Pause to consider, what should good alumni relations look like in the wake of a tragedy like Harvey or Irma? What kinds of things can an alma mater be doing for its alumni and others when disaster strikes? Here are five possibilities.

1. Send Helpful Messages of Support
Send emails of support to alumni in affected areas, but go beyond the simple, “we’re thinking of you” boilerplate. Offer information they might actually need. They may have access to email via their cell phones, but intermittent internet service or bandwidth issues may make it difficult for them to download much information or news. An email from the alumni office that includes the 800 numbers for emergency relief services in the area, or the known locations of shelters and food distribution centers could be just what a person needs, and your alumni office can be a conduit in getting that helpful information where it needs to go.

2. Offer What Resources You Can
A College is not a disaster relief organization, nor should it try to be, but there may be ways the institution can be of support to alumni and others in times of tragedy. Depending on the institution’s proximity to the disaster, there could be opportunities for volunteers from campus to go and assist where needed. Campus counseling services could be made available to victims on a temporary basis to assist in dealing with the initial shock. College cafeterias are notorious for throwing out copious amounts of food after each meal. Again, depending on proximity, boxed meals could be delivered to shelters or other victims. The key is to assess the situation and the available resources, and get creative.

3. Help Organize a Volunteer Effort 
Do you have active alumni in the affected area who might be interested in forming a group to go volunteer for one of the relief organizations? This can be a great way to help alumni unite behind a common cause, and can it be a powerful relationship builder. Not all alumni events need to be fancy dinner gatherings.

4. Reassess Area Alumni Events
With regard to alumni gatherings and the like, do an assessment of any upcoming events you have in the affected area. Are they still doable? Would attempting to go forward be dangerous or in bad taste? Take the time to assess the situation and modify plans accordingly.

5. Do Not Send Online or Direct Mail Appeals
This should be common sense. When people have lost their homes and are working to pick up the pieces, the last thing they want to hear from their alma maters is a request for money. Do a thorough assessment of who your next appeal is going to, and when, and segment out those who are best served by not being approached.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the point is to think carefully about how you are engaging alumni in the wake of a disaster. As anyone who does alumni/development work knows, this business is always and everywhere about relationships, and that means being sensitive to, and caring about, the needs of your alumni when they are dealing with a tragedy.

Question: What strategies does your organization have for engaging alumni in helpful and meaningful ways after a disaster? Leave a reply below.

Posted by Dr. Mark Zobel

Director of Annual Giving at Blackburn College

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