In April 2016, Alumni Access published outstanding research presenting the current state of alumni relations. The VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study outlined several long-term issues that alumni relations and advancement need to be paying attention to now.
The study revealed that while large alumni organizations are growing and alumni relations as a profession is spreading internationally, organizations with alumni networks under 100,000 are either stagnating or in a state of decline. These small organizations are on tight budgets and are often integrating alumni relations with advancement.
Integration: A Blessing In Disguise
Alumni need a unified message from your institution and a cohesive user experience while on your site. The context of their personal engagement with their alma mater (whether for networking, career, reunion or social) is often singular, but their alma mater’s functional departments are often siloed - resulting in many messages and lots of noise. Breaking down silos between these voices is key to improving engagement.
Despite department integration being a positive trend, the study also found that lifelong alumni engagement may suffer as a result. Why is that?
From what we’ve seen, fundraising takes center stage when it comes to department resources. It has a direct and immediate impact and is easy to measure. However, when an organization's efforts are so focused on fundraising they often fail to recognize how much cultivation needs to be done (or should have been done) before making the ask - no matter whether it's in a living room, in a mailing, or on the pages of a crowdfunding campaign.
When alumni complain that they only hear from their alma mater when they are being asked to donate, clearly the institution needs to provide real value to those alumni before making the next ask. It's like that friend who you want to spend time with, but every time you go to dinner they ask you to pay the bill. After a while, you'll become more selectively responsive to their outreach. The same is true between alumni and their alma mater.
Ask Not What Your Alumni Can Do For You...
In an environment where alumni relations and advancement truly collaborate, alumni relations could emphasize cultivation of goodwill and donor lead generation to support advancement. This can be achieved by maximizing the percent of alumni they are connected to (e.g. that are reachable via email - a simple metric easily and instantly accessed in an online community), and maximizing the percent of those that are donating any amount, to any cause affiliated with the institution.
This includes tiny crowdfunding campaigns such as a club’s initiative to attend an event, or a license and certification fund, or a fundraiser for a particular student - anything that builds your constituent's trust and makes them truly feel a part of the community. In this context, it's all about participation, not the amount of the gift. And a $500 campaign is a welcome home for those alumni (or current students) who need to know their $5 donation does make a difference.
Tools To Build Goodwill
I attend many industry conferences and often wish alumni relations leaders would shift the focus from driving engagement (have you checked the ROI on your events lately?) to providing value to their alumni. Our belief is that cultivating gratitude is the fastest way to drive donations, so our engagement and fundraising platform is designed accordingly to deliver stronger support to your alumni, helping them fully leverage a shared educational experience and common bond. Offering these tools that are connected to the complete alumni directory is a way to provide a different value proposition than LinkedIn. In addition, a single platform can help organizations balance the messaging between general engagement and asks for dollars.
Using an integrated CRM system provides a centralized area to track email marketing and fundraising efforts. This gives alumni relations and fundraising professionals the opportunity to see when the last time they were in contact with an alum was and in what context. Did you make an ask in your last email? Maybe your next email should be a value-add instead.
Organizations large and small need technology that lets them see their alumni outreach efforts in a holistic way, and make better informed communications decisions. This will in turn drive high quality engagement among alumni, and result in a greater willingness to give back. Integrating siloed efforts is a good thing, but it requires strong leadership to create and communicate the vision to the whole team.