As Executive Director of USC's 24,000-member Alumni Association, Jack Claypoole Explains How My Carolina Looks to Engage Every Generation

Richard Breen

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

The University of South Carolina is known for alumni and fans who steadfastly support their school in good times and bad. Jack Claypoole is one of those alums, having graduated from USC in 1987.

Claypoole is also executive director of My Carolina, the school’s 24,000-member alumni association. The organization boasts a $26-million building that just celebrated its first birthday. My Carolina is also taking on a new mission in supporting USC.

Here, Claypoole talks about an eventful past year and an exciting future for the organization. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

South Carolina CEO: Does the Alumni Center still feel new to you?

Jack Claypoole: It does. We actually trademarked a word when we were going through the grand opening for the building. The word is “newstalgia.” As an association, how do we create a facility, and consequently programming, that is meaningful to a 17-year-old who’s trying to make a decision to attend the University of South Carolina all the way up to a 107-year-old who’s an alum who believes in the institution? The building was designed to be a little more timeless than some construction projects because we knew coming in that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime project for us.

SCCEO: With last year’s flooding, your opening was a bit hectic.

Claypoole: What we clearly learned was that our alums care about the community. The flood hit about the time we had originally planned for our grand opening and so many people that were going to be honored, that were going to be involved in Homecoming, literally turned on a dime and became relief workers. Our clubs in Atlanta and Charlotte and Washington and so many others from around the country really came home in a way that was heartwarming for us. What it showed us was the real power of the association is our people.

SCCEO: And then you’re getting ready for Homecoming this year and here comes Hurricane Matthew.

Claypoole: But we also saw with the (flooding) tragedy that unfolded in Louisiana and what is continuing to unfold in South Carolina’s Pee Dee and Lowcountry is a kind of natural response that has now become an expected, long-term response for us. Everybody’s ready to roll when these types of events happen. The nice thing about being an alumni association is you find your alums in opportunistic places to be helpful, whether it’s the police chief in a town that’s been hit or the head of a not-for-profit that’s doing relief work or the head of a trucking company that can get you vehicles to get product moved. You end up finding that the power of relationships of alums – which is really what we’re all about – shines through organically in times like this.

SCCEO: With this new building came new responsibilities as far as holding events. Did y’all really know what you were getting yourselves into?

Claypoole: Absolutely not. You always expect, with a new product, that there’s a “shiny penny” effect. People want to be a part of it because it’s the newest thing. We underestimated how many people wanted to be a part of it initially and we really underestimated how much passion, how much excitement there is. What we’ve found out in the past year is we’ve doubled the business we predicted we would have. In fact, we are well ahead of where we predicted we’d be at the end of the fifth year of business.

That’s due, first of all, to the love and support from a bunch of Gamecocks who want to be here, want to have weddings here, want to have birthday parties here. But also a lot of community support – businesses and not-for-profit organizations using the facility for everything from strategic planning meetings to celebrations and philanthropic events. Even during Hurricane Matthew, because this is a private facility, we actually stayed open, both to serve customers and to do relief work.

SCCEO: You mentioned passion. Earlier you mentioned the power of relationships. That segues into a tweak in the mission of My Carolina.

Claypoole: Traditionally, when people think of “alumni,” they think that’s something they do around mid-life. As an association, we are in the process of developing an entirely new strategic focus that begins even before someone becomes a Gamecock student. Why would somebody choose our university over another one? How do we help close that deal? How do they see the power of an alumni network that leads them to understand the connections they have will be valuable to them in business after they graduate?

Seventy percent of what happens to a Gamecock happens outside the classroom. It’s the experience of being a university student. And it’s meaningful for our alumni to walk beside today’s students, coaching them through what it means to deploy a skill they just learned this past semester, hiring them for internships and co-ops, being in cities outside Columbia and welcoming them once they graduate and helping them build community and connections. We say you’re only going to be a student for four years, but if the university creates a meaningful experience around that, you’ll be a Gamecock for life.

SCCEO: So how do you do that? There has to be buy-in on the other end.

Claypoole: We have to understand our audience a little better. In this environment, where Millennials like to engage but are not traditional “joiners,” what they’re looking for is value. Is that worth my time? So we’re changing our own value proposition in that space and being accessible. While we’ve built a beautiful facility, we’ve designed within this facility the ability to capture data and information and learning and stream it across the globe and make it available to folks electronically. To start off in that space, we have begun a pretty intensive series of both qualitative and quantitative research of our own market.

SCCEO: How different is that from alumni organizations at comparable schools? Has anybody benchmarked this?

Claypoole: Nobody is far enough out front for us to say, “that’s the model.” We’re looking at about a 3-to-4-year trend in data right now. The industry itself is at a crossroads. The old version of the alumni industry is kind of like Blockbuster and if we’re not careful, we’re going to keep stocking VHS tapes on shelves and Netflix is going to be pushing content into people’s houses and we’ll become irrelevant.

SCCEO: What has the response been like? Are the older folks getting what you’re trying to do? Are the younger folks accepting what you’re trying to do?

Claypoole: Folks who are at mid-career, they’re really hitting their stride, they have some free time, they have some life experience. That group, along with our retired group, are really ready to come back and add value. They’re in positions in the workforce where they can hire Gamecocks, do mentoring, job shadowing, those types of things.

Our young alums, interestingly enough, are probably the ones who understand the language of our current students better than our mid-career and our retired folks. One of the things that we want to do a better job of is engaging young alumni earlier about paying their experience forward. If a young alum just happens to have taken the MCAT, it means a lot more to have that individual talking to someone who’ll be making that same decision in the next 24 months than someone who might have gone through that same process 20 years ago. In the historic model, folks come through as a student and they kind of wander for a while as young alums and then they come back once they realize they want to be connected and this is fun. We don’t want there to be that break.

SCCEO: With young alums, there seems to be some who feel their personal tribe is so big, they don’t need you, and some who get so busy professionally, they don’t have time for you.

Claypoole: We believe your greatest level of connectivity comes within your smallest social group that you managed while you were here. That’s where your strongest bond will be. As an organization, if we can help individual colleges on campus, if we can help dorms on campus, if we can help organizations on campus develop a philosophy of “student and alum,” that makes it easier for those folks to stay connected. Then it’s not the big university reaching out to someone to come and be a part of something.

Long term for our institution, the thing we see everybody coming together on is the importance of education in general. Affordable, accessible education is critical to the infrastructure of South Carolina and of our country. How do we become advocates for that?

SCCEO: I imagine that’s a lot of work for you, but it might also be kinda fun.

Claypoole: It’s a lot of fun. The thing I appreciate about the University of South Carolina is the trust they have in our alumni to be daring. To build a 60,000-square-foot alumni center. The university didn’t build it. Facilities and Operations didn’t manage the planning and the execution. It was all done privately. Not only can we build a building, but now we can build a new generation for this industry. We’re leading, and that is kind of exciting.

 

Richard Breen is a senior editor at SouthCarolinaCEO.com. Got an idea? Contact him at richardbreen@southcarolinaceo.com

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