Summary: When alumni & advancement teams work against each other (knowingly or not), alumni engagement can suffer. But agreeing on an institutional definition of "alumni engagement" can help all advancement professionals know their roles, and work smarter (and happier) together.

 About a 5 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.)

Alumni engagement remains a significant challenge for numerous alumni/advancement professionals, sparking continuous discussions within the field. But what exactly does it mean? Why does it vary in interpretation across different organizations and even within different departments of the same institution?

Honestly, "alumni engagement" has been tossed around in various contexts with vague definitions so frequently that it's on the verge of becoming a tired cliché. With its broad interpretations and overuse, the term risks losing its significance altogether.

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.” There seems to be an abundance of chatter around measuring alumni engagement, crafting an engagement index, or utilizing predictive scoring models - all of which are undoubtedly valuable insights.

But let's set aside the metrics discussion for now. How about we come up with a definition that actually makes sense for most institutions? Call me ambitious. Call me optimistic. But having a clear definition that everyone agrees on could really step up your game in alumni engagement.

Defining alumni engagement clearly at the institutional level can help your team grasp the essence of success, steering them away from the pitfalls of focusing solely on short-term objectives and fluctuating performance metrics that may impede long-term progress.


Narrowing the Definition

I decided to pick the brains of several alumni/advancement professionals to see how they define alumni engagement in their institutions. Surprisingly, it turns out that most organizations are a bit fuzzy on the whole concept. While alumni professionals tend to have a clearer idea, development/advancement folks seem to be passing the buck. It's a bit of a mixed bag out there, with many in the field chasing after alumni engagement without a solid grasp of what it really means, or what it entails. 

Of the many definitions of alumni engagement out there, I like those that 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.”AdobeStock_222460982 - attraction

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. Their 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.

emotional-connection-2Rb2I8TZ6O8-unsplashAffection is not only about a willingness to give of their time, talent, or treasure, but a desire 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 ensuring 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 true influence on your 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 include those who have time and talents to contribute. Unfortunately, many institutions focus so much on pursuing relationships with wealthy alumni at this stage, that they neglect alumni who have talents and time to offer their alma mater. It’s a shame and a waste in my opinion. But for those alumni/advancement professionals who are paying attention, these influential alumni can be a great resource.


Engagement levels

  Attraction Connection Affection Influence
  • Opens email, reads e-newsletter, magazine.
  • Registers for online alumni services
  • Downloads your mobile app

  • Social media amplification:  (Share, post, re-tweet, tag, curate, etc.)
  • Uses mobile app
  • Occasionally uses alumni services
  • Attends events or reunions
  • Takes full advantage of alumni services
  • Frequent attender of events
  • Volunteer and/or participates in important events/activities
  • Champions the institution and its mission.
  • May have given as a student, and may give on occasion. 
  • Reliable annual member and/or gives to annual fund regularly.
  • Gives to scholarship or other directed fund/Lifetime member
  • Major gift and/or Legacy gift
To advance
to next level:
  • Giving, joining or volunteering depends on understanding the value or ROI of being connected.
  • Giving, joining or volunteering is regular, but not guaranteed. Needs a personal relationship with someone at the institution.
  • Giving is highly likely, looking for opportunities to leave a legacy & further influence the institution.

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 organizations 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.

Very old tractor in field, different parts - no trademark at allStephen 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.

What's wrong with soliciting new grads their first year as alums? 

Nothing, provided you've properly cultivated these alums in the first place.  Provided you've added some form of value to the relationship. The last thing you want to do as an institution, is treat your alumni like an ATM.  


Institutions who mostly depend on the goodwill and loyalty of alumni, and are constantly soliciting them without adding value, are engaging in a short-term, short-sighted strategy. Eventually, both loyalty and generosity will fade if not nurtured. 

Over time, alumni's connection to their alma mater can diminish, especially if they encounter negative experiences outside your control, like poor customer service, unexpected charges for services, negative media attention, bothersome emails, and most notably, incessant and unwelcome donation requests.

If you're going to transition alumni from a basic "attraction" engagement level to eventual "Affection" and "Influence," level, then every contact matters.  There is no such thing as a "throw away" interaction. And if you're institution is always asking and not giving back, don't be surprised if more and more of your alumni ask to be listed as "Do not solicit" or "Do no contact."  


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?

My next article will be about measuring alumni engagement. Just subscribe here and we’ll send you an email letting you know when it’s published.

Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, institutional advancement, alumni benefits, Customer Engagement, influence

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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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