Johnston drives for excellence in constituent relations
Photo by Dan Addison
By Charlotte Crystal
Even as he eyes the course ahead of him, Christopher Johnston is focused on a winning strategy.
Johnston admires American golfer Bobby Jones, who was “a player apart,” he said. Jones won nine championships and in 1930, the Grand Slam — the British Amateur and Open, and the U.S. Amateur and Open.
“Now they’re saying there are good players and there is Tiger Woods,” he said. “What I’m looking for is for people to say, there are a lot of good alumni programs and then there is the great partnership between U.Va.’s Alumni Association and the Office of Constituent Relations. I’m excited about reaching a level of excellence that sets us apart.”
Johnston’s energy, ambition, excitement and drive sold the search committee on hiring him as assistant vice president of U.Va.’s newly created Office of Constituent Relations. He started on Jan. 3.
“He’s the most optimistic guy I’ve dealt with in a long time,” said Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs. “He sees the cup as more than half full.”
Johnston comes on board at a pivotal time, as the relationship between the University and its Alumni Association is being restructured. An Alumni Relations Task Force, appointed by U.Va. President John T. Casteen III in 2003, recommended the creation of new opportunities for alumni. The plan incorporating those recommendations was completed in February 2005, but will take several years to put into place.
“We have an extraordinary gift in timing right now that will allow us, in partnership with the Alumni Association, to develop a new alumni engagement structure from scratch,” said Sweeney. “We want to be among the best alumni programs in the country.”
In a related development, C. Thomas Faulders III, a 1971 graduate of U.Va., takes over as president and chief executive officer of the U.Va. Alumni Association in mid-February. He replaces Jack Syer, who is retiring. Faulders and Johnston will work closely together to shape the new alumni and constituent initiatives.
The University’s dedication to engaging all its 192,000 alumni — not just those with the ability to make large gifts — goes beyond the upcoming capital campaign, said Mary Blair Zakaib, transitions manager for constituent relations. She has managed the restructuring of the relationship between the University and the Alumni Association and overseen the creation of a new division dedicated to alumni and constituent engagement. In effect, the relationship between the University and its alumni has been re-envisioned — from a short-term delivery of services to a life-long connection.
“What we’ve heard from alumni, and from colleagues at our peer schools, is that alumni want a lifelong relationship with their alma mater,” Zakaib said.
Alumni seek opportunities for continuing education long after they walk down the Lawn. They want to preserve a sense of community with other alumni, not only at reunion time, but also year-round through the Internet and other means. They’re looking for a variety of ways to stay involved with the University beyond giving money, ways to contribute that enable them to serve as living examples of the values of Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Johnston is looking forward to leading and inspiring his team to achieve these goals. His strong background in alumni relations and institutional advancement suggests that he is up to the task.
Johnston returns to the East Coast after two decades of work and study in California. He holds an undergraduate degree from Boston University and earned two master’s degrees, in Chinese and Japanese, from universities in Japan and the University of Southern California. He also holds a law degree from USC.
He has worked in development and alumni relations for several universities in California, including the University of the Pacific, UC-Riverside and UC-Irvine. He also has dedicated personal time to charitable and professional service, serving on numerous community boards, including the Japan American Society, the Asian Business Association and the YMCA.
Before leaving California, Johnston visited alumni associations at a number of colleges and universities — UCLA, USC, UC-Davis, UC-San Diego, UC-Irvine, Pomona, UC-Berkeley, Stanford and Caltech. He spoke with everyone he could, from alumni association presidents to secretaries.
“I asked them to imagine what the very best alumni program would look like — if they could remove all restrictions, if money weren’t a factor,” he said. “They gave me wonderful comments and drew ideal organizational charts. But, you know, a lot of it boiled down to customer service.”
So, he will be coaching his team to make extraordinary customer service par for the course.
“We will look at numerous case studies of organizations providing excellent customer service — Harvard, Ukrops, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton — and study their secrets of success,” he said.
To apply that knowledge, he will need to establish new relationships and partnerships with many different people, which has been a hallmark of his career. His previous positions have included teaching executive management, and most recently, serving as executive director of university advancement at the University of California-Irvine. While the California job was “fantastic,” the opportunity to make a difference at U.Va. — with its landmark partnership with the U.Va. Alumni Association — was one that Johnston couldn’t pass up.
For years, U.Va. has had a very good alumni relations program. “But now, we’re about creating greatness,” Johnston said. “I would be proud if, in the future, when our constituents talk about excellent customer service, the University of Virginia is one of the names that immediately comes to mind.”
It won’t happen overnight. But Johnston plans to train his team to swing for excellence each time they step up to the tee.