Veteran alumni leader and chair of Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) Brian Krisberg ('81CC, '84LAW, P: '18CC) recently spoke to Columbia alumni relations professionals about his long history of leadership and volunteerism at Columbia.
Excerpts from his speech are provided below.
When I was asked to speak this morning, my initial reaction was what in the world could I possibly have to offer to you all about alumni relations. After all, you’re the experts. Then I thought to myself that I have been coming back to campus on a pretty consistent basis in myriad alumni leadership roles for the past 25 years, so perhaps I do have something useful to say.
"It's a story of how far we have come and of how much more we can do."
As Professor Andy delBanco in the American Studies Department likes to remind us, you can never fully understand the present, unless you spend some time trying to understand the past, the history of how we got where we are today. So I thought I'd begin with an overview of my experiences with alumni relations at Columbia. It's a story of how far we have come and of how much more we can do.
I first joined the Board of Directors of the College’s Alumni Association in the late 1980s. The College Office of Alumni Relations and Development consisted then of a handful of loyal and dedicated professionals working out of a basement office in Hamilton Hall. You get the sense from that location of how much of a priority alumni relations was back then. There were no windows, so to speak. There was limited light and not a lot of space to greet or host alumni. We used to joke that alumni relations and development consisted of Bill Oliver and Bruno Santonocito’s rolodex, and they'd better not lose that rolodex. By the way, some of you are too young to know what a "rolodex" is. College Alumni Association Board meetings wandered from meeting room to meeting room in various midtown Manhattan hotels or if we were lucky, to the board rooms at Emigrant Savings Bank, owned by our very own former Trustee Phil Milstein, or Dime Savings Bank where a former CCAA President worked as a senior credit officer. Reunions were intimate gatherings, which translates into not particularly well attended.
"We used to joke that alumni relations and development consisted of Bill Oliver and Bruno Santonocito's rolodex and they better not lose that rolodex."
During the late '90s, the College's Alumni Office and the Office of University Development and Alumni Relations (as some of you may recall, referred to as "UDAR") were moved to the 9th floor of the Interchurch center on Claremont Avenue and 120th Street. This was a big improvement from the basement, I suppose, but now located five blocks from the center of campus.
UDAR was primarily a development operation. University "Alumni Relations" in the early 2000s consisted largely of something called the Alumni Federation. As best as I could tell, the Federation existed principally to host a luncheon after University Commencement where the ten University Alumni Medals were awarded in Low Rotunda. This was actually OK with me because it gave me the opportunity to shake Muhammed Ali’s hand in 1999 when I received the Alumni Medal at lunch. UDAR was on the same floor as the College Alumni office but was physically separate and in some ways almost felt like the famous George Carlin joke about football: "the other half of the field is enemy territory."
While there were regular growing pains in the early 2000s, those of us around today who were active in that era clearly knew then that we were onto something, something significant and meaningful for the University. There was a large mass of uncultivated alumni out there, certainly in the tri-state region, but also throughout the US, in Europe, and especially in Asia, that were looking for ways to re-connect with their individual schools and equally important, with the University.
"Those of us around today who were active in that era clearly knew then that we were onto something, something significant and meaningful for the University."
One of the most valuable contributions to the Columbia community that former Dean Austin Quigley made during his 14-year tenure at the helm of Columbia College was to make alumni relations, and more specifically the cultivation of alumni leaders and alumni volunteers at all levels, a College priority. It was a harbinger of things to come.
How does one go about creating a central alumni relations capability on a scale that touches the entire University while simultaneously respecting the activities and autonomy of school loyalty based organizations? It's a daunting task. Columbia is a deceptively large University, much larger than most people realize with 16 Divisions, 4 Affiliate Colleges, and 6-7,000 new alumni each year. And, as I have noted, historically alumni relations at Columbia was a decentralized business, narrowly focused on school-loyalty based organizations with limited focus on the celebration of the Columbia experience in its broader sense and the endless possibilities for alumni engagement across various schools that can grow from that.
Then, interestingly, a number of events occurred in rapid succession, by Columbia standards, which set the framework for where we are today. President Bollinger, a Law School alum, arrived in 2002. His new head of the University Trustees was Bill Campbell, a College alum. President Bollinger brought with him from the University of Michigan Susan Feagin, a GS alum. Seeing the College's nascent but growing momentum with its alumni, and sensing the larger opportunity as the University celebrated its 250th Anniversary in 2004, these alumni leaders worked with the Trustees to approve and fund the creation of the CAA in 2004-5. In the initial years of CAA, my personal focus was College driven as I served as CCAA President from 2006-08.
The conclusion of my CCAA tenure coincided with the arrival of Donna MacPhee as CAA President in 2008. I immediately shifted gears to support both the CAA and the CCAA simultaneously. This seemed perfectly natural and normal to me. CAA was only a value-add proposition in my view. I did not view the relationship of CAA and my school loyalty based organization as a zero sum game or as substitutional, in the sense that the more I do for CAA takes away from what I do for my school. To me, the more time and energy I, and by extension all our alums, devote to Columbia, be it CAA or school alumni organization driven, is by definition a positive.
Let's fast forward a little bit. In February 2012, President Bollinger invited University Trustee A'Lelia Bundles and me to chair the CAA 2017 Presidential Task Force. The work of this 20-person group led to the preparation and issuance of a report in summer 2012 entitled "Toward a Culture of Engagement and Collaboration." The title to this report is fundamentally important: "a culture of engagement and collaboration." That is what we're on a mission to create. It may take the work of a full generation of alumni to get there, but I am optimistic we will.
"To me, the more time and energy I, and by extension all our alums, devote to Columbia, be it CAA or school alumni organization driven, is by definition a positive."
Enough history for now.
I was provided a few questions that I might offer my responses to:
Why do I volunteer?
Why is the work of alumni relations professionals (regardless of your particular role or job) important to the volunteer experience?
What are the hallmarks of a strong volunteer-staff member relationship?
On the why do I volunteer question, I would say there are two principal reasons. The first...[It's] not a novel observation to say our undergraduate and graduate school years play a critical role in our formation as individuals. Because I appreciate that formative role, I think it is equally important for me as an alum to find ways to come back and to give back to the school that played such a significant role in making me who I am. So as you perform your work searching for future volunteers, the more you can first, identify alumni who make that connection and place a value on it, and then, find opportunities to give those alumni meaningful tasks or engagements with Columbia, our volunteer ranks are likely to increase.
"I think it is equally important for me as an alum to find ways to come back and to give back to the school that played such a significant role in making me who I am."
The second reason goes to the make-up of certain individuals such as myself. As one of my closest friends from childhood likes to say, and this dates back to high school, schoolwork was not enough. I always needed an extracurricular activity, be it theatre or sports. This reality has continued in my professional life. I was looking to get involved with something outside work when the CCAA called in 1989. I have always felt the hours spent volunteering at Columbia have refreshed and re-energized me, and in many ways educated me and made me better at the office, when I resumed my day job.
The second question is why is alumni relations work paramount to the volunteer experience? While it's not obvious, and you might say it's a little counterintuitive, I view alumni relations work as analogous to my occupation of being a transactional lawyer. In both roles, we are conduits or enablers helping other people achieve a desired and valuable result. In my case, someone wants to borrow or lend money secured by property or mortgage loans or someone wants to buy or sell the property or those mortgage loans. I help them achieve that result. Alumni relations professionals interact with alums, provide the tools and avenues, and open the doors for increasing numbers of alumni volunteers to contribute to the life of the University on a regular basis. Similar to the legal deal team environment that I work in, alumni relations work takes many forms. Some people are on the front lines engaging with alums regularly. Others are operating behind the scenes doing more of the preparation and legwork to facilitate the resulting product. Each is equally important to the outcome.
"I have always felt the hours spent volunteering at Columbia have refreshed and re-energized me, and in many ways educated me and made me better at the office, when I resumed my day job."
Finally, what are the hallmarks of a strong volunteer-staff member relationship? I think it begins with listening to what the volunteer is interested in or may want to do and determining what expertise the volunteer has to offer. Then you find ways to engage that interest or utilize that expertise and build from there. It's important to encourage volunteers to express their goals and objectives in the relationship and to make clear what their time availability is.
Engagement comes in many forms. Can the volunteer begin by finding the time to show up at a welcome event or a farewell club event? Can he or she attend a luncheon on a regular basis or a cocktail party or host a dinner or event or meeting? Perhaps he or she can speak on a panel, be a mentor to a current student or students, or provide an internship, or better yet, a job. Is the person looking for a networking opportunity or a career change? Is a shared interest group, be it professional, cultural, or ethnic, something that appeals? Do they like sports and want to support athletics? Are they ready to commit to being part of a board of directors or other governance structure? Can they help a Faculty member or the Dean on a particular topic? Where are they in their life trajectory and evolution? How can they give and gain from this experience?
Over the years as an alumni leader, I have tremendously enjoyed getting to know fellow volunteers better, suggesting alternative ways for them to become more involved, be it running committees or taking on new tasks outside their historic sweet spot, and watching their engagement grow.
Going forward, we need to emphasize to the alumni at every opportunity the importance of being "University citizens," which to me means that simultaneously an alumnus can be extraordinarily loyal to an individual school or division, some would say zealous in the typical Columbia tradition of school based loyalty, and at the same time the alumnus is equally committed to the University brand as a whole, dedicated to keeping Columbia at the top of the list of great Universities in the country.
"Going forward, we need to emphasize to the alumni at every opportunity the importance of being 'University citizens'"
Brian Krisberg '81CC, '84LAW, P: '18CC is currently the chair of Columbia Alumni Association (CAA). He is a partner in the New York office of the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, where he practices in the real estate group. He received a BA in political science from Columbia College and a JD from Columbia Law School.