Data confirms that deeper connections and stronger relationships with your institution translate into higher donor support. Donor support is critical for effective institutional advancement. This effective advancement yields sustained institutional success.
Organizational structures, programs, and services are evolving as institutions seek to harness the opportunities and benefits that result from engaging their constituents. With an increased pressure to implement objective measures of progress and success, there’s a drive to connect the dots between engagement and donations. But how can we accomplish this?
Alumni Communities have come to the forefront as one of the most efficient and cost effective ways to engage alumni and engender greater affinity, loyalty, and philanthropy.
In the early 90’s, companies like PCI, Harris Connect, IAC, and iModules developed the first alumni communities. Their platforms were the first generation of communities to provide basic engagement tools and proof that even a scaled down community provided great benefit. Early adopters of these platforms were the well-resourced schools that could commit dedicated personnel and budget, with initial measurable goals such as:
- Number of alumni registered
- Number of alumni reachable via email
- Increased attendance at events
These institutions collectively set a new standard for how to engage alumni online. They soon discovered that engagement and relationships grew as a result of these platforms, and the “community concept” - now more financially accessible to all - developed along with them. Today, the role of communities has evolved from simply offering information to fostering and nurturing meaningful connections. Institutional needs have expanded to include features like career opportunities, interactive maps and list-building, and tools for alumni to lead their own engagement initiatives. Companies like 360Alumni are leading the charge in this next generation of alumni communities.
Making the Case for Change
To start building your case, make a list of what you would have today if you had launched an alumni community two years ago. Examples might include:
- A manageable and sustainable home for your data
- More online engagement
- A powerful asset for enrollment marketing
- A new, growing donor base
All of these benefits would be desirable, whether you had a crystal ball to know the metrics for such improvements or not.
“Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.” ― Tim Berners-Lee (Inventor of the World Wide Web)
Online communities deliver impressive benefits, but they require a vision, goals, and time to build momentum. While you measure success during your launch year and beyond, the ROI and ROR (Return on Relationships) grows over time.
Leading social media strategist Ted Rubin defines ROR as “the value that is accrued by a person or brand due to nurturing a relationship. ROI is simple $’s and cents. ROR is the value (both perceived and real) that will accrue over time through connection, trust, loyalty, recommendations and sharing.”
To really break through and reach your market in this social media age, the marketing focus needs to be on building relationships, and metrics need to expand beyond ROI.
Metrics for Every Stage
Let’s consider the metrics you might use to measure these benefits both at launch, and into the future once your community has matured. According to a study done by Demand Metric on online communities, most metrics fit into these 3 buckets:
Basic: Traffic, posts, measures of activity
Intermediate: Measures of alumni engagement, advocacy or loyalty
Advanced: Measures that include revenue generated and ROI from engagement activities
Metrics are important for several reasons:
- They provide information about how well your community is performing
- They provide insights into how to best manage your community
- They can help you determine your ROI
To accomplish all three of the above, you need at least intermediate-level metrics. You will need to invest some time to go beyond basic and invest in building your relationships with alumni. The foundation of your alumni program must be built on the understanding that a relationship is an investment - value must be delivered in exchange for continued support. Value is not just the static experience either - cultivation is key. It is a long tail effort, and you will need a vision for how to turn your alumni data into money.
The Rewards of an Engaged Community
Not long ago, US News and World Report published rankings of the top Universities where alumni donate the most. Of these top performers, an average of 53% of alumni gave back. In order to achieve these levels of giving, the seeds must be sown. There is a famous Chinese proverb that says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” Each year that you delay in forming this vision is another year without the proper foundation to achieve these levels of success - whether measurable or immeasurable.
As leaders in alumni relations, advancement or fundraising, administrators are charged with establishing and cultivating relationships that benefit the school or nonprofit financially down the road - either directly or indirectly. Those who have built upon traditional practices, such as face to face events, by implementing online engagement strategies are seeing the rewards of alumni loyalty and philanthropic success.
Setting the Stage for Success
As Alumni Relations redefines its function as a more data-driven, results oriented and “digital” department, their value increases for both alumni and their institutions. Cross-functional stakeholders (i.e. leadership, admissions, development, career services) will stand behind efforts that can measurably move alumni across the spectrum of connection and involvement, eventually translating into philanthropic support.
Most schools talk about the power of their alumni network, but few fully deliver on their promise.
In our information age, the shelf life of a degree is continually diminishing. But the power of the network endures, and can be cultivated over a lifetime. With an online community you can invite prospective students in to see firsthand how much you care about your alumni. Institutions that are adopting this type of engagement strategy are seeing this support measurably returned and will be best positioned for long term success.
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