For those who haven’t heard, one of the worst decisions of the current government has been to not renew the Millennium Scholarship Foundation.
The foundation, created by Chretien in 2000 had a 10 years of funding to pursue three goals: 1) improve access to post-secondary education, particularly for students facing economic or social barriers; 2) encourage a high level of student achievement and engagement in Canadian society; and 3) to build a national alliance of organizations and individuals around a shared post-secondary agenda.
After 10 years of dispensing scholarships and bursaries there is now a large alumni group of Millennium scholars, many of whom have met one another as a result of an annual conference the foundation which brought scholars from across the country together to learn from external speakers and one another. In short, the Millennium alumni network is a relatively vibrant community composed of some very compelling people.
But now the organization that created that community is ending. So one question the foundation has been asking itself is: how does the community continue to have impact once both its funding has stopped and the alumni network ceases to grow? This is a challenge common to many groups. For example, I’ve frequently heard conference organizers ask how can the participants can continue to grow and learn from one another once the conference ends. In theory, new social networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook should make this easier. In practise, it is not always the case.
As I look at Millennium and reflect on its strengths, its community and the tools it has available, a couple of thoughts come to mind.
First, neither overestimate nor underestimate the power of one’s brand.
Firstly, in relation to not underestimating the power of brands, try to think about what it is that your brand has enabled, and why people might be grateful or interested in it. In the case of Millennium, it has helped make a post-secondary education possible for thousands of people. But it did more than that, it found people who were creative, smart, interesting and passionate about life and their communities. It also brought them together to meet and engage one another. If its alumni network did nothing more than serve as brand that allowed people to connect to on another over the next 40 years that would be in of itself a powerful outcome. It may sound trite but in my own life I’m always willing to meet with someone who participated in either Action Canada or Canada25 (two other discontinued program with a fixed alumni group). Both those groups consisted of people who I know want to make the world a better place, and if I can help them, I’ll try. Same with the Sauve Scholars. The fact that I can call on people in these networks and ask for their help, thoughts or advice is one of the most important legacies of these projects.
On the overestimate side, people should recognize that just because it is easy for people to connect, doesn’t mean that they will. Getting a broad network of people to sustain action on a given subject matter (especially if that subject matter didn’t bring them together in the first place) is very, very, difficult. In the case of the Millennium Foundation, it could encourage its network of alumni to tackle global poverty. This is a laudable goal, but it is not the issue that initially brought the group together so attachment to this issue is likely to be highly varied. This is a group with diverse interests. Some may want to focus on technology start-up, others on the environment, others on surviving grad-school. Trying to shoehorn a large group into a single goal is hard, especially if the group make up is now fixed and can no longer grow/evolve to focus on it. A powerful and/or well regarded brand does not mean you can do anything.
My hope is that the alumni are trying to figure out what it is that they, as a group, do have in common. In the case of Millennium, my sense is that one thing everybody in the network can agree on is that education is important. The very fact that they are Millennium Alumni means they have benefited from access to high quality education. So if the network was, from time to time, going to focus its energy, something related to this issue area might have the greatest resonance. Activities, actions or an annual event that attempted to do something simple around promoting education might be a good place to start. This could sustain the network’s relevance in the lives of its alumni as well as maintain connectivity among a certain percentage of its members. I’d also argue that the country could stand to have a 5000+ army of smart, engaged, interesting and increasingly powerful people who continuously champion the importance of education.