Tuesday, January 6th, 2009
If you didn’t read the comments on my recent posting “Our Product is Better Than Our Brand“, I strongly suggest clicking through to see them. There are some very thoughtful and insightful contributions from readers that are very worth checking out.
One thing a couple people suggested was tapping into people who moved away. This is a great idea. Jim Russell has been exploring the concept for quite some time over at Burgh Diaspora. There are a few examples out there of cities that have done it. Boston is working on one, for example. But this is still fairly virgin territory and I think there are still first mover advantages to be had.
Part of the challenge is that treating people who left as an asset instead of a loss is counter to the conventional wisdom of “brain drain”. The other is that this one of those “fertilizing the soil” type of programs I mentioned. It doesn’t necessarily have an immediate term ROI. This makes it a hard sell politically. But all the best ideas require long term commitment and staying power.
I actually wrote up a one-page “pitch” for an “alumni association” for Indianapolis. I wasn’t sure who to look to for sponsorship, however. Nor was I particularly ready at the time to drop what I was doing and try to launch such an organization myself. In the belt-tightening world we are in today, this is likely an idea that, whatever its merits, isn’t going to make the cut for funding. However, I’ll present it here in the hopes that readers find it useful. As always, this would apply equally well to any Midwestern city.
Indianapolis should create an alumni network. Universities like Harvard and companies like McKinsey have long recognized the value of cultivating their alumni as a source of new business, donations, and engaged supporters. The emerging economies of places like China and India have been powered by connections to the global economy fostered by their diaspora networks. Cities should likewise be able to cultivate connections to those who left and leverage them for similar results. It is a way to fertilize the soil and build a better climate for the city’s future growth. Benefits include:
- Building connections to the global economy. In an ever more globalized world, city alumni can be the foot in the door in places like Silicon Valley, San Diego, New York, London, China, and other key business centers around the world. It is easier to do business when there is an existing connection and the common experience that breeds trust to leverage.
- Creating ambassadors for the city. Former residents are Indy’s field sales force. They are marketers and cheerleaders for the city in their new home, providing free exposure to the good things happening in Indy. Who better to sell the city abroad than its expatriate community?
- Opening a pipeline of ideas. Cities today cannot survive on internally generated ideas alone. Ideas flow faster than ever and change happens more quickly. Getting new ideas transmitted sooner, and knowing what is working and not working out in the world, can help keep Indy ahead of the change curve. Alumni can help better plug Indy into the great global conversation that is increasingly shaping our world.
- Easing the path of return. Keeping people who leave updated on local happenings and showing them their engagement locally is still welcome makes it more likely they will think of and choose Indy as a place to return to. To the extent that Indy helps its people succeed wherever they go, that will only build loyalty to the home town, whether they return or not.
This network is a near whitespace opportunity for Indy. Cities have not yet looked to tap their diaspora communities in the way that other institutions have. Indy has the chance to gain early mover advantage. But this opportunity will not last forever. As the quote at the top says, Boston is looking to set up something like this. In the future, it may be that every city will need to have an alumni network just to keep up with the competition.
The template for a successful alumni program is well-understood via successful examples in the academic and business communities. The concept also lends itself to small scale startup and incremental investment over time.