Summary: Using data from the 2024 VAESE Alumni Relations Study, we reveal key takeaways for large, medium-sized and small institutions. We reveal how staffing, budget, and tech shape engagement; offering actionable tips tailored for your alumni relations challenges. View the free webinar to see the results and analysis of this new global study about alumni relations in higher ed. You can also download the 27 page study here.

About a 14 minute read

What’s the state of higher education alumni relations?

Since 2015, we have been exploring this question, beginning with the launch of the groundbreaking VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study. This study, the first of its kind, was created to address the lack of easily accessible and affordable research specifically focused on alumni engagement. Previous research mainly centered on higher education advancement, development, and fundraising, leaving a gap in the field of alumni relations.

We all know that good data isn’t cheap. But if you can find any studies offering metrics related to alumni relations, it’s usually at a very high level, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of helpful comparison data. As a former alumni professional, I looked in all the right places, but couldn't find anything that addressed the most critical issues that I would care about. And if there was any actionable data out there, it’s usually cost prohibitive, especially for smaller alumni operations.

I speak from personal experience. I'm a former alumni director at a large state institution. I know what it means to be cash strapped. Heck, there were times I could barely afford to pay work-study students to stuff my annual fund envelopes, let alone shell-out thousands of dollars for data to help me see how my program compared to my peers. 

Upon joining Access, I was tasked with enhancing our services for higher education alumni clients. With numerous unanswered questions and a lack of available data, we took it upon ourselves to conduct the necessary research. Having experience in various research projects, exploring the realm of alumni relations was a challenge I eagerly embraced.

We launched the inaugural VAESE study in November of 2015, not knowing if anyone would really care about our results. To our delight, it was well received by the alumni relations community and we continue to see the study downloaded and referenced in various articles, research, and social media content.

The 2024 Study & Webinar

That brings me to our most recent 2024 study.  You can download the study here.

You can also see the related analysis at a 60 minute webinar viewable here.

As far as the study goes, we’ve had over 400 institutions participate in the study. They hail from four continents and fifteen countries. They represent 47 of the 50 states. Our respondents consist of 74% senior management, including titles like “Executive Director,” “Vice President,” and “Associate VP.”  We're confident in the rigor of this study, and feel it adds to the body of research that can help all alumni relations professionals do their jobs better.

two American professionals on screen hosting a webinar, showing a slide with colorful graphs, and some indication that many people are participating i-1The webinar reviews the most important findings from the study, focusing on issues related to staffing, budget allocations, technological requirements, and strategic leadership. The study has 19 unique datasets that include a wide array of topics relevant to alumni professionals.   

Whether your from a large institution utilizing its ample resources to nurture a dynamic alumni network, a medium-sized organization balancing expansion and personalized interaction, or a small college enhancing its influence with a lean staff, the findings shed light on both common obstacles and unique hurdles encountered by each.

For this article  here, I’ve used 4 of the 19 datasets  to arrive at five key takeaways for  these unique alumni audiences: (Click on the link that's most relevant to you)

Hopefully, you will discover valuable and relevant information within this blog post.

While there may appear to be similarities among the key takeaways, it's crucial to recognize that they are not universally applicable. Each takeaway is customized for a specific group, so pay attention to the subtle differences. Despite a common theme, the recommendations can vary significantly based on the context.

Five key takeaways for an alumni organization at a large NCAA Division 1 Conference School with ten or more FTEs:

  • Double Down on Communicating and Delivering Value:


Based on our analysis, one of the main challenges in alumni engagement is the need to provide compelling and relevant value across different types of institutions. Larger schools have been successful in delivering on their value proposition thanks to their strong visibility and brand recognition. It is crucial to continue prioritizing communication and offering unique, high-value benefits to alumni. This includes investing in exclusive events, networking opportunities with industry leaders, attractive retail discounts, and special athletic offerings that capitalize on the school's prestigious reputation. Maintaining this commitment to providing relevant, value-added benefits will be key to effectively attracting and engaging alumni in the long term.
  • Strategic Use of Resources:

an intimate office setting around a boardroom table where five professional women are wearing business casual clothing, each with a laptop in front of-1-1While staffing levels appear to have increased since 2016, there remains a concern among your staff about not having a sufficient workforce to complete necessary tasks. There are also significant concerns about potential external threats that could lead to budget cuts. It is crucial for a large, NCAA Division 1 school to prioritize efficient resource allocation and ensure that any increases in budget and staffing are strategically aligned with clear objectives to enhance alumni engagement and satisfaction. This may involve investing in technology to streamline daily tasks and improve communication strategies for better engagement with a diverse alumni population.

  • Addressing Technological Demands and Skills Gap:

Respondents indicate concern about the increasing demands of technology and a potential skills gap among staff. This would indicate a clear opportunity for a large institution to lead in digital transformation within alumni relations. Implementing cutting-edge CRM systems, utilizing data analytics to tailor engagement strategies, and providing comprehensive training to staff can all help bridge any existing technological gaps. While the use of AI is becoming more common among alumni relations professionals, our study indicates that many alumni professionals dislike the increased focus on technology, but especially AI. This could be mitigated by conducting specific training that could help show how to increase productivity with AI, and demystify this and other less-familiar technologies.

  • Navigating Organizational Dynamics:

Nagging concerns about strategic leadership and potential reorganization highlight the importance of stable and visionary leadership in alumni relations. For large alumni operations, where the stakes and visibility are higher, maintaining organizational stability and clarity in leadership roles can help mitigate your staff's concerns and foster a more focused and proactive alumni relations strategy.

  • Enhancing Communication and Addressing Perceptions:

Despite the increase in budgets, there seems to be a disconnect in staff perceptions regarding the financial stability of the organization. It's essential to make a more focused effort to communicate how resources are utilized and the impact they have. Providing regular updates, transparent communication from leadership about any changes, and actively seeking feedback from staff and alumni can help align perceptions with reality and enhance satisfaction with the institution's progress and performance.

Additional Considerations

Engagement Metrics and Accountability: For nearly all large schools, setting clear metrics for engagement and regularly reviewing these metrics can help ensure that strategies are effective and that resources are being used to their fullest potential. Accountability frameworks can also help in aligning staff performance with strategic objectives.

Alumni Needs Assessment: Conducting regular assessments of alumni needs and satisfaction can help tailor engagement strategies more effectively. For a large school, where alumni might have unique needs or higher expectations, understanding these needs through direct feedback and engagement metrics is crucial.

Building a Community Feel: Despite the large size of the institution, creating a sense of community and personal connection can significantly enhance alumni loyalty and engagement. Special interest groups, regional clubs, and targeted communications can help personalize the alumni experience and strengthen their connection to the institution.




Five key takeaways for an alumni relations executive in a medium-sized higher education institution with 4-9 FTEs.

  • Staffing and Budget Constraints are Critical Concerns:

The data clearly highlights the significant concerns surrounding staffing levels and budget constraints within alumni relations. Despite some growth in full-time equivalents (FTEs) dedicated to alumni engagement, respondents express worries about inadequate staffing and potential budget cuts. This suggests that even slight increases in staffing may not be effectively addressing the workload or strategic requirements, possibly due to insufficient budget allocations or inefficient resource utilization. This issue is particularly pronounced in institutions where advancement and alumni operations are fully integrated, and where fundraising and engagement responsibilities lack a clear delineation. Transparent communication from leadership regarding budget decisions and infrastructure investments, along with actively soliciting feedback from staff and alumni, can help bridge the gap between perceptions and reality, ultimately enhancing satisfaction with the institution's progress and overall performance.

  • Engagement and Value Proposition Challenges:

Alumni engagement continues to pose a significant challenge, attributed to the perceived absence of compelling and relevant value for alumni. This concern is escalating, especially with the heightened competition for alumni attention. Institutions stand to gain significantly from implementing a fresh engagement strategy centered on showcasing their most compelling, memorable, and distinctive alumni benefits. If you don't have any benefits that are compelling to a broad audience, consider something with universal appeal and can impact your alumni with everyday value. If you want alumni to engage, give them an incentive to engage. Gone are the days when you keep drawing from the well without replenishing it.   

  • Technological Adaptation and Skills Gap:

The data highlights a significant concern regarding the growing technological demands and the skills gap among staff members. This underscores the importance of continuous training and investment in technology to not only enhance engagement strategies but also streamline operations and alleviate the workload for current staff. Within medium-sized alumni offices, it's evident that many employees express a reluctance towards embracing technology, especially AI. While AI can greatly assist in automating routine tasks within your office, mastering these essential skills will necessitate a dedicated and concerted effort from senior management.

  • Strategic Leadership and Organizational Stability:

Challenges surrounding strategic leadership and the possibility of organizational restructuring indicate a need for improved direction and stability within alumni relations departments. Strengthening leadership skills and offering clear, unwavering strategic direction can help address operational uncertainties, boost team morale, and enhance overall effectiveness.

  • Perceptions vs. Reality in Resource Changes:

There appears to be a disconnect between the actual changes in resources (both human and financial) and the perceptions of these changes among alumni relations professionals. Despite reporting increases in both staffing and budget in some areas, many professionals feel that resources are either stagnant or insufficient. This could be indicative of communication gaps within the institution or unrealistic expectations about the pace and impact of resource enhancements.

Additional Considerations

Feedback and Data Utilization: Consistently gathering and evaluating feedback from alumni and staff is essential for pinpointing areas of improvement and potential opportunities. This valuable input should guide adjustments in strategy and the allocation of resources to effectively cater to alumni needs and align with the institution's objectives.

Employee Support and Development: Supporting the well-being of alumni relations staff by addressing their concerns about job security, workload, and skills is crucial for nurturing a motivated and productive team. Providing opportunities for professional growth and implementing support systems can help alleviate these worries.



Five key takeaways for an alumni executive at a small institution with three or fewer FTEs dedicated to alumni relations.

  • Critical Impact of Staffing Constraints:

The data highlights a significant challenge in small institutions due to inadequate staffing to complete essential tasks, ranking as the top concern in the stress index dataset. With inherent limitations in staffing, it emphasizes the necessity of effective task management through prioritization, automation, and potentially outsourcing non-core activities. Engaging volunteers from the alumni network can also play a vital role in expanding the capabilities and reach of the small staff team.

  • Enhanced Focus on Value Creation in Alumni Engagement:

Engaging alumni poses a common challenge, with the absence of compelling and relevant value frequently cited as a major obstacle. Small institutions need to focus on crafting personalized engagement strategies that tap into their unique strengths, such as fostering a sense of community, offering personalized communication, and providing niche networking opportunities that may not be available at larger schools. Prioritizing everyday, meaningful value is key to ensuring your organization remains at the forefront of alumni's minds.

  • Budget Sensitivities and Strategic Resource Allocation:

Concerns about budget cuts are prominent, and for smaller institutions with potentially more limited funding, ensuring financial sustainability is crucial. This means advocating for alumni relations as a vital part of the institution’s advancement activities, demonstrating ROI through engagement metrics, and exploring diverse funding streams, including partnerships and grant opportunities.

  • Adapting to Technological Advances with Limited Resources:

Respondents voiced concerns about the increasing demands of technology, indicating that small institutions must be strategic in their technology investments. This could involve adopting cost-effective, scalable solutions that offer significant efficiencies or improved engagement capabilities. Training for existing staff in key technological tools that enhance productivity is also crucial.

  • Navigating Leadership and Strategic Planning Challenges:

The dataset indicates concerns about strategic leadership and potential organizational changes. For a small team, clear, consistent, and visionary leadership is even more critical to maintain focus and drive impact. Small institutions benefit from a more agile decision-making process, which should be leveraged to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and alumni/ae needs.

Additional Considerations

Leveraging Strong Personal Connections: Small institutions often have the advantage of stronger personal connections with their alumni. These relationships should be nurtured to enhance engagement, encourage philanthropic support, and leverage alumni as ambassadors and volunteers.

Effective Communication and Feedback Loops: Given the perception gaps highlighted by the datasets, small institutions should prioritize effective communication both internally and with their alumni. Priorities should include regular updates, transparent communication about challenges and achievements, and active solicitation of feedback that can help align perceptions and enhance community cohesion.

Professional Development and Staff Support: With limited staff, ensuring each team member is at their most effective is crucial. Investing in professional development not only improves individual capabilities but also boosts morale and job satisfaction, which is particularly important in small teams.

I'm hopeful these key points have sparked some interesting discussions among you and your team. There's a treasure trove of information waiting to be uncovered in this data that we haven't fully delved into yet. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line. I'd love to hear your take on things.

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For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.

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