Summary: When alumni & advancement teams work against each other (knowingly or not), alumni engagement can suffer. But agreeing on an instutional definition of "alumni engagement" can help all advancement professionals know their roles, and work smarter (and happier) together. About a 6 minute read.
67% of higher education institutions report they struggle with alumni engagement.
87% of alumni organizations report they “do a poor job,” or “need to do more” to engage young alumni.
27% admit they have no strategy to boost engagement. (Because that metric is self-reported, I’m guessing the real number is significantly higher.)
Clearly alumni engagement is a sore spot for many alumni/advancement professionals. And we talk about it all the time. But what is it? Why does it mean different things to different organizations, and within different departments of the same institution?
Frankly, I’ve heard the term “alumni engagement” bandied about in so many different contexts and with so many wishy-washy definitions, it has almost become a cliché. It is so frequently mentioned, often with broad interpretations, I fear it may soon have little or no meaning.
If I do a specific Google search for “alumni engagement” (with quotes) I get a gazillion results. More often than not, it’s used in the context of “metrics.” I see a lot of discussion about measuring alumni engagement, developing an engagement index, or using predictive scoring models, all of which is great information.
But I’m going to forego the discussion on metrics for now. Instead, I would like to propose a common definition that would apply in most institutional settings. Call me grandiose. Call me naïve. But if everyone at your institution can agree on a meaningful definition, it may help everyone do a better job of engaging alumni.
Having an institutional definition of alumni engagement can not only help your team define what success looks like, but avoid being influenced by the whims of short term objectives and shifting success metrics that often do more harm than good.
Narrowing the Definition
I reached out to a several alumni/advancement professionals to learn how their institution defined alumni engagement. Surprisingly, most organizations don’t have a definition. Alumni professionals were more likely to have a definition, development/advancement professionals didn’t see it as their responsibility. While most are pursuing alumni engagement, many don’t have a specific description that encompasses all of what happens in alumni/development/advancement operations.
Of the many definitions of alumni engagement out there, I like those who define it in terms of “measurable forms of alumni behavior that lead to building a stronger bond with the institution.”
I also see some value in defining it as “an exchange of value, where alumni give time and money in exchange for value from their alma mater.” But in my mind, the definition of alumni engagement is a lot less transactional, and much more focused on the relationship-building process.
Real alumni engagement is not an event, but a journey. It’s an umbrella term reflecting how the relationship develops, evolves, and matures throughout an alum’s stages of life.
So with all that in mind, here is how I define alumni engagement in a higher education setting:
Alumni engagement is the level of Attraction, Connection, Affection, and Influence an alumnus has with their alma mater over time.
Attraction is the first phase of engagement, and is often one of the biggest challenges for alumni organizations. The VAESE Alumni Benchmarking study shows that 62% of alumni organizations are “not focused on offering alumni any significant benefits,” and instead “appeal to the philanthropic generosity or loyalty of alumni/ae to (get them to) engage, join, or give.”
I believe the key is to offer personally relevant benefits that attract the attention of your alumni, and incentivize them to respond. Solicitation is not an effective tool to attract alumni. You can’t truly connect with your alumni until you have offered them something they value that can attract their attention.
Connection occurs when alumni actually follow through and respond to your incentives. Connection is a much lengthier phase, and many alumni may spend years or decades in this phase. They’ll respond to your appeals for volunteers, use your digital programs, attend events, give to the annual fund or join the alumni association. They’re connection will wax and wane over time according to their life situation. Most alumni may never move beyond this phase, but that’s okay. Connected alumni are influential in building your program, and help inspire others to be involved. With diligence and patience, your best connected alumni will progress to the next phase.
Affection is not only about a willingness to give of their time, talent or treasure, but a willingness to evangelize and amplify your institution’s goals and objectives. These alumni are fewer in number, but make up for it in loyalty and eagerness to contribute. Affection can be further encouraged through recognition efforts, and especially by insuring they have a friendly (professional) relationship with someone at the institution.
Influence is the ultimate step in the process. At this stage, alumni are substantially and meaningfully engaged, and if given the opportunity will jump at the chance to make a lasting impact on their alma mater. But this stage in the relationship requires authenticity, openness and trust. If you want to invite an alumni to have influence on campus, you need to trust them, and they need to trust you.
Additionally, these alumni aren’t just those who have significant means, but also includes those who have time and talents to contribute. Unfortunately, many institutions focus so much on pursuing relationships with wealthy alumni at this stage, they neglect alumni who have talents and time to offer their alma mater. It’s a shame and a waste. But for those alumni/advancement professionals who are paying attention, these influential alumni can be a great resource.
to next level:
Alumni can and will transition between phases. But the goal is to move them forward, and that can be accomplished through smart engagement practices.
Each institution will differ in how they delineate the responsibilities for each step in the engagement process. Larger alumni organization may only be tasked with attraction and connection, and development manages the later stages. Smaller alumni/advancement offices may be responsible for all four phases of engagement. Regardless of which department within the organization manages each phase, each is crucial.
But each phase must happen in its proper order, and according to the alum’s station in life. You can’t force alumni engagement, any more than you can force a potato to grow in a week.
Stephen R. Covey called it the “Law of the Farm
“In agriculture, we can easily see and agree that natural laws and principles govern the work and determine the harvest. But in too many (higher education) cultures, we somehow think we can dismiss natural processes and cheat the system. Can you imagine forgetting to plant in the spring, flaking out all summer, and hitting it hard in the fall--ripping the soil up, throwing in the seeds, watering, cultivating--and expecting to get a bountiful harvest overnight?”
Some institutional cultures may encourage "quick fixes" or short-cut techniques, and some may see brief success. But in the long run they just don't work, and actually do more harm, especially when you attempt to “harvest” before properly “cultivating” each relationship.
The VAESE Alumni Benchmarking study likewise illustrates this unfortunate phenomenon. Nearly one-third of institutions (30%) send three or more gift solicitations to new graduates during their first year. Seven percent of institutions send five or more solicitations to new graduates during their first year.
I’d like to hear your opinion. Does this definition work at your institution? Why or why not? How does your institution define alumni engagement? Are your alumni and advancement team on the same page?
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