Achieving Relevance—5 Rules for Events That Matter to the People Who Matter to U


We’ve just dipped a toe into Nina Simon’s fascinating book The Art of Relevance, and her message that relevance isn’t something “an institution can assign by fiat” resonated strongly with our ideas about events: “Your work matters when it matters to people—when THEY deem it relevant, not you.”

Watching the national commencement coverage this spring, we saw a sea of young people with a spectacularly wide mix of experiences and backgrounds. Each college class represents America as it could be. And this is no accident. Cultivating diversity at all levels is a core value for most schools.

And so it follows that with the graduation of each new class, the alumni event formula that has worked for past generations will be less and less relevant to the people who matter the most to U.

So often, it’s not the glitz and glamour of an evening, but the small, authentic moments of connection that are the markers of a truly exceptional event.

Through many years and much trial and error, we’ve learned that these moments can’t be manufactured.

But they can be nurtured.

In times of uncertainty, we’re all tempted to fall back on what’s worked for us in the past, to stay within our comfort zone.

But U only plant the seeds of relevance when you’re ready to look at the events you do every year in a different way.

So as you begin working on next year’s slate of events, we encourage U to tap the rich, creative energy and disruptive thinking that already exists on your campus.

How? Read on!

Rule #1: Put Diversity on the Table

If it isn’t an agenda item, you’re signaling that it isn’t a priority. If you’re lucky (or wise), you’ll already have someone at the table who will push it forward. We worked with just such a visionary recently on a year-long tour. At every planning meeting, she asked, what does this say about us as an internationally-focused university, what does it say about our campus culture?

But don’t count on luck (or innate wisdom) to deliver an event that speaks to a truly diverse audience. Something magical happens when making diversity a priority comes from the top. And that magic comes to life when individuals who are plugged into all areas of your campus community are empowered to help shape events.

Reach out to the leaders of student and alumni affinity groups to ensure that the interests of the full range of alumni and friends are considered early and often. Make sure there are voices at the table who will challenge the planning team to expand their view and consider the full breadth of your institution’s program and core values in your event’s program.

Rule #2: It’s Not About U—It’s about Them

From the food, music, and venue to the line-up of speakers, build an event that reflects the interests, concerns, and experiences of the audiences you’re hoping to reach. We know that a capella group is always available (and we love a capella as much as the next person), but are there other veins of creativity and programmatic excellence that you can tap?

When you’re casting the event, make sure your speaker line-up is diverse—in age, gender, ethnicity. And in the current political climate, it’s important to dig a little deeper as you consider your roster of experts and celebrities to make sure you know their resume and are aware of any hot-button issues so you won’t be taken by surprise when somebody else surfaces challenging information.  

Rule #3: Curate the Guest List

Start not with who’s on your mailing list, but with these questions:

  • Who matters to us now—and why?
  • Who will be important to us in five years, ten years?

By bringing together different generations and different segments of your campus community, you create the opportunity for connections that couldn’t happen anywhere else. And you lay the groundwork for the leaders who will carry your institution into the future.

Rule #4: Be Welcoming

This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of this on a global scale. If you want your guest list to represent your entire campus community, make sure that your scheduling, location, and program signal that you are aware of and care about what your guests care about.

This can be as simple as paying attention to religious calendars and not scheduling a major event on Rosh Hashanah or during Ramadan. It can mean tapping into alumni affinity groups not only to shape the event, but to create buzz and encourage participation through social media and informal networking. Invite Millennials in ways that make sense to Millennials.   

Rule #5: Ask for Feedback

Return to those voices you brought to the planning table to ask how you did, and how you can improve. If these are groups you haven’t reached out to in the past, let them know you want to continue the conversation. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Best Practices
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