When it comes to alumni engagement, your Mom had it all figured out. 

In honor of all mothers, I’d like to share some life lessons I’ve learned from my mom and relate them to running your alumni relations/advancement program. 

1- Your Mom loves you for the long haul.  (She’s not in it for the Mother’s Day gift)

I wasn't always the perfect child growing up. I had a tendency to slack off and only do the bare minimum to avoid getting into trouble. I would often tidy up my room by hiding all my clothes under the bed, or quickly rinsing off the dishes and put them away even if they weren't completely clean. But my mom didn't see me as a one-time project. She had a much more insightful approach. She took the long view, focusing on how I would turn out in the end and seeing past my occasional lapses in judgment.  

The lesson: Build your organization with the long view. Creating a lifelong relationship is far more profitable than any short-term revenue you can generate from an alum. As an organization, don’t settle for doing the minimum just to keep alumni from complaining. Take a long-term approach by delivering more than enough value to cultivate lasting, meaningful relationships.   

2- Your Mom showed favorites (She really did love your sister more)

Despite all the protests that she loved her children equally, there is always that one sibling who received special treatment. The one who got to stay out late. The one who got to go on more trips. The one who basically got whatever they wanted, because they did everything your mom wanted. (I’m not sounding resentful, am I?) But her slight favoritism served a purpose. It served a greater goal.

The lesson: It’s okay to show favorites when it comes to your alumni, as long as you’re consistent and reward alumni who behave in ways that benefit your organization.  Let them know the thresholds they must achieve in order to reach a higher tier of benefits.  Your most loyal members/givers should be incentivized to earn your greatest benefits. But not everyone will respond to your incentives to upgrade, so don’t shame members who are satisfied with lower-tier benefits. Always keep it positive.

3- Your Mom taught you to over-deliver. (Work harder to exceed expectations)

I was nine years old when I got my first job mowing lawns.  My mother was constantly harping on me to stop taking shortcuts or stop giving the least effort possible just to get by. She taught me to take extra time to carefully edge the lawns of my clients or to always sweep away the clippings (who knew what a leaf blower was?) As a result, I was offered more mowing jobs because I was exceeding expectations.


The lesson:  Don't accept shortcuts when it comes to benefits. Over-deliver on the benefits you offer, rather than paying little mind to your overall value proposition. Successful alumni organizations spend considerable time developing their benefits, focusing on relevance, immediate value, and ease of use. Your benefits must align with members' value expectations. Don’t rush out to solicit new alumni donors/dues-paying members before your benefits are fully in place. 

When alumni recognize that the value your organization offers, exceeds the costs of giving/engaging, they will grow far less cost-sensitive to your subsequent solicitations and will become increasingly loyal as a result.

4- There’s nothing like your Mama’s KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid.)

AdobeStock_39141550 KISS

My mom was always encouraging me to tone it down a bit. Keep it simple and don’t over-complicate things. I remember as a kid falling in love with mini-golfing. So much so that I tried to build my own 18-hole putt-putt course. But my grandiose ideas far exceeded my skills and attention span. My attempts at building a windmill eventually became a home for mice, raccoons, and other varmints because I didn’t know what I was doing. Instead of an 18-hole course, I ended up with zero holes that actually worked.

The lesson: Keep the goals of your organization simple, and work your way up to more complex goals. Once you get going, test, iterate, and make improvements as you grow. For example, make sure your process for onboarding new donors/members is simple. It should always be an easy process for alumni to initially engage. Simple programs tend to remove barriers to engagement, as barriers will limit how long alumni will stay engaged.


5- Your Mom has a long memory. (Remember that time when you…)

My mom had a knack for remembering my numerous mistakes, and recalling them at just the right time to motivate me to behave. She’d say, “Remember that time when you agreed to mow the lawn, and it took a week to get around to it?” She would then leverage that bit of information to tailor special consequences (i.e. threats) to make sure I always followed through.

The lesson:  I’m not advocating that you build a dossier on your alumni and use it against them, but I am advocating the benefits of collecting data. Your alumni leave a huge trail of valuable data as a result of your everyday interactions. Be smart about collecting, organizing and analyzing all the data you have available about them. Use that data to make improvements on your services, build stronger relationships with alumni and identify important trends that can help you improve engagement and retention. Know your alumni.  Know their demographics. Know their preferences. Know what motivates them.


 6- Your Mom taught you to ask questions (Ask good questions to get good answers.)

My friends and I would always make plans to go on a horseback ride, or go camping. Inevitably I would ask my mom for permission and she would say “Which of your friends is going?” (Some friends were a better influence than others.) “Where will you be going…exactly?” “When will you be back?”  Somehow, I didn’t ask those questions of my friends. (Or at least I didn’t get the right answers for my mom's satisfaction.) I was more or less just making assumptions and acting on my gut. My mom wanted specific answers to important questions, before she would make a decision. 

The lesson: Frequently ask questions of your alumni and probe for meaningful answers. Survey them often to find out their likes, dislikes, and preferences. Learn what makes them stay connected, and interview disaffected alumni to learn why they stopped giving, renewing or engaging. Make goals and programming decisions based on data, and not by simply trusting intuition.

7- Your Mom fed you regularly. (A meal a week wouldn’t cut it.)

My mom was always in the kitchen. She loved to cook. It was her creative outlet. Aside from feeding us three great meals a day, she also had a reputation for feeding the neighborhood too. She always had food on hand, or she'd invite friends over for a meal. Consequently, our house was the center of activity in the neighborhood. For obvious reasons, everyone wanted to hang out at our house. 

The lesson: (I know this is a bit of a stretch, but follow me here:) Feed your relationships with your members regularly. Communicate often and through multiple channels. Give them reasons to stay engaged, and work hard to be entertaining and fun.   

Increase your frequency of communication. According to this study, the average membership-based organization sends four emails per week to its members. How often do you email your alumni? Once or twice a month?  Is that enough to feed your relationships or are your alumni starving your alumni? Keep them well fed. Send at least one email per week. Your “starving” alumni will go to the “neighbor’s house” if your'e not keeping them engaged. There’s plenty of competition out there to grab the attention, engagement and money of your alumni.  

8- Your Mom was skillful negotiator.  (She always had the big picture in mind)

Growing up in a small, rural community, and it was a real treat to stay out until midnight playing night games like “No Bears are Out Tonight,” “Kick the Can” or “Steal the Flag.” My mom was a skillful negotiator when it came to allowing me special privileges. She knew when it was appropriate to let me stay out late, and it usually coincided with special chores she needed me to do, like cleaning the garage, or weeding the garden. Giving in to my special plea was a not a weakness, but a way to achieve her greater objectives.


The lesson: Don’t be so rigid that you don’t allow your staff the power to negotiate special benefits, or in the case you’re a dues-paying organization, special rates for membership dues – when it’s appropriate. Not only will it provide a higher level of service that members appreciate, but price sensitive members will also be less likely to leave if they feel they have negotiated a special deal.


My mom was probably unaware that she taught me a lot about the fundamentals of loyalty and engagement. While I admit I'm only a little biased, I think we can all learn from her age-old wisdom. Happy Mother's Day.   




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Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni, alumni benefits, VALUE ADDED BENEFITS, Digital Marketing

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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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