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Improving alumni relations

September 1, 2009
by Lorie Obernauer, PhD
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An active alumni program can reinforce recovery principles and boost a treatment center's marketing

Many addiction treatment programs offer clients a continuum of care: diagnostic assessment, primary treatment, extended care, outpatient services and/or referrals. Other programs are designed to provide only one of these services along the continuum. In any case, we must ask an important question: What happens to our clients once the prescribed services are deemed to be “complete”? Is this the end of our responsibility to clients?

To be successful, treatment programs might be advised to offer one more type of service in the continuum: an active alumni program. Those of us in the business recognize how important it is for our clients to stay involved in the recovery community if they are to remain clean and sober. We understand that this is a lifelong commitment for clients. An alumni program can serve to enhance their efforts. It requires the same diligence in setting goals and planning activities to meet those goals that we devote to the other services we offer.

In addition to directly serving clients, an alumni program also contributes to the ongoing success and growth of a treatment program itself. If our treatment centers are to remain viable, we must continue to attract new clients. When our clients reconnect with family, friends and colleagues in healthy and successful endeavors, this speaks volumes for the effectiveness of treatment in general and of the particular treatment center where the client received services.

Establishing connections among clients

A first goal of an alumni program might be to help clients establish and maintain connections with one another. Connections with other people in recovery are vital for success in a life of sobriety. If geographically possible, clients might get together on a regular basis for meetings.

A weekly support meeting, during which clients share experiences faced at home, school or work, can be especially meaningful when conducted with people with whom clients are already familiar. Although we hope our clients are finding new 12-Step meetings to attend as well, the safety of familiar surroundings and people cannot be overlooked. Potluck dinners before meetings and social events after meetings are easy to coordinate and can add another dimension of growth for clients in recovery.

For alumni who live close to the treatment center, involvement in projects to “give back to others” will reinforce efforts to stay connected. Alumni might organize a party for clients who are in treatment over the holidays. Or, they might gather to do volunteer work for a community agency. Helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity or spending a day working at a food bank not only serve as examples of how to spend free time, but also emphasize the importance of giving back as a part of our recovery programs.

Even if clients do not live near the treatment center, computers and cell phones allow for frequent contact among individuals and can easily be used for group contacts. Web conferencing, online meetings and Web seminars allow clients to talk by phone while all view a common agenda on their computer screen. These contacts can be facilitated by one person who suggests a topic for discussion or writes about a particular problem he/she is facing while others provide input regarding how they have dealt with those issues.

Whether these contacts are face-to-face or electronic, the impetus for this process must be initiated while the clients are still in treatment. Before leaving treatment, clients should meet the program's alumni coordinator and learn about the purposes of the alumni program. Discussions with the alumni coordinator should center on the importance of maintaining contact with others and how the alumni program might help in that respect. Ask clients to provide an e-mail address and phone number for these future contacts. Ask if they would be willing to be a mentor for new clients. With this “permission to contact” in place, other goals of the alumni program can be pursued.

Establishing loyalty to the center

Our alumni are our best referral sources. A client who had a successful experience in treatment will do more to spread the word, and thereby bring in more business, than many of our other advertising venues. From a business standpoint, it is in our best interest to nurture and continue to work with our alumni, since it will be their testimonials that will bring new clients to our doors.

So how do you instill this loyalty? The alumni coordinator can serve as a vital part of this process by making connections with clients before they leave the treatment environment. For people who are newly clean and sober, establishing new relationships can seem like a difficult process. A face-to-face meeting between the client and the alumni coordinator before treatment is finished can help start this process. Sharing stories, discussing aftercare plans that have been developed with clinicians and talking about next steps are the foundation for establishing this connection. This also offers an opportunity for the alumni coordinator to describe how alumni program activities can assist with the client's efforts.

Through individual and group contacts as described above, the alumni coordinator can support a client by helping him/her maintain connections with other alumni. Clients might be asked if they are willing to include their e-mail addresses and phone numbers on a list that would be distributed to others. Furthermore, the coordinator can make periodic calls to clients. This is a valuable way to keep strong connections between former patients and the treatment center. These contacts not only serve to remind the client that he/she is important and valued, but they also provide opportunities to keep track of clients' progress in their aftercare plans.