Network Innovation Spotlight / December 17, 2020

Engaging Alumni & Hosts Through a Virtual Lunch Series

By Sarah Sibley, Vice President for Citizen Diplomacy, WorldBoston

Like our fellow CBMs, the pause on in-person programming challenged us to find ways to continue to deliver our mission of providing international exchange opportunities to our community.

To continue delivering on our mission and combat isolation, we developed a program to engage our exchange alumni and volunteer dinner diplomats, creating an experience similar to home-hospitality visits – only this time with the international participants as the hosts.

Using email addresses gathered from participant bios in our Salesforce database, we contacted 150 exchange alumni – a large enough sample size to get substantive feedback but small enough to allow us capacity to respond to their ideas – with a Google Form survey to gauge their interest and solicit their ideas for virtual exchange programming. We prioritized English-speaking alumni from the past 14 months whom we assumed might have the most appetite for engagement based on their fields: journalism, social media, and civic engagement.

Simultaneously, we used a similar form to survey our volunteer dinner diplomats — veteran hosts of IVLP participants in their homes —asking if they would be interested in joining our alumni at the virtual table as a “thank you” for the countless time and meals donated to our visitors over the years. The answer was an emphatic “yes,” so we scheduled the sessions for lunchtime (Eastern Time) so our dinner diplomats could take advantage of their lunch break to share a meal with their hosts.

Our five Culinary Diplomacy sessions ran from mid-April to August as part of our broader virtual series, “International Exchange in a Time of Isolation.”

We made sure to involve the alumni in developing each event, focusing on the human dynamic and experience during the pandemic, and invited other alumni and locals who had hosted them during their trip to Boston to build on connections made during their in-person visits.

Through this program, we were able to actively engage our exchange program alumni for the first time and ensure we continued delivering our volunteers and local resources opportunities for exchange.

For CBMs interested in involving exchange alumni in virtual programming, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Manage your expectations of how many alumni will respond
  • Keep in mind your organization’s capacity to keep up with the response
  • Engage alumni in shaping a virtual program, rather than just asking them to be a speaker on a pre-determined topic
  • Consider how you can re-engage local resources from the alumni’s visits in the program (i.e., moderating a conversation, serving as a panelist, introducing a guest, etc.) to continue the exchange