Many institutions want a "genius hack" into cultivating alumni relationships so they can speed up the giving process. But here's why institutions should stop trying to shortcut the natural process of nurturing meaningful and lasting alumni relationships.  

(About a 4 minute read)

A few years ago Stephen Covey worked with me on a book project, and I was able to get to know him a little bit. (This was just a year or so before he died from a bicycle accident.)

If you don’t know his name, maybe you know his books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” or dozens of other titles. He sold over 20 million books and coined iconic phrases like “synergize”, “paradigm shift,” and “win-win.” While some today view his ideas as clichéd, he nonetheless remains a well respected thought leader, and I value some important life lessons he taught me.

But at the risk of appearing like an insufferable name dropper, I’d like to share a story he told me. I think it has great relevance to the rapidly changing professions of higher ed. alumni relations and advancement:

When Steven was working on his undergraduate studies he was proud of his ability to “cram” his way through school. “I thought I was a real clever fellow,” he said. He believed he could game the system by doing just enough to make the teacher happy. If a professor graded on reading the text book, he read the book and skipped the lecture. If the teacher graded mostly on lectures, Steven attended class and skipped the textbook. He only read a Cliff Note book summary. He crammed for tests, and didn’t really retain much of what he was there to learn. “All I wanted was a shortcut to a grade,” he admitted. He was measured by his grades, and that’s all that mattered. He wanted as pain-free an education as possible.

But when he arrived at Harvard for his MBA, he realized he was out of his league. He spent his first few semesters scrambling to make up for four years of undergraduate cramming. The result was landing himself in the emergency room with ulcerated colitis.

By trying to game a natural process, he learned some painful lessons, and spent several unnecessary years having to clean up the mess from what he called his "arrogance and foolishness."


The Law of the Farm

He calls this natural process “The Law of the Farm.”  Both in business and in life, we can’t “game” the laws of nature, or try to find a "genius hack" into the mysteries of human relationships. Nature takes its sweet time and we suffer if we don't learn to have patience with nature’s timeline.

Imagine trying to take a shortcut on growing tomatoes? Would you plant your seedlings in the spring, wait a week or so, and then expect to harvest ripe tomatoes? Or imagine trying to rush into a marriage relationship, meeting and proposing the same day, simply because you had a self-imposed deadline and wanted to speed up the process. 

As silly as this sounds, that’s how many institutions approach alumni relations and advancement.

There are no "genius hacks" that shortcut the natural process of planting and cultivating genuine relationships with alumni, and it's harmful to those relationships if to try to "harvest" before the relationships have naturally grown and "ripened."

Meaningful relationships with alumni need time for cultivation and nurturing if they are ever to become fruitful. 

  • Hacked relationships are one-sided, shallow and disposable.
  • Cultivated relationships are mutually beneficial, substantial, and enduring.

Which type of relationship do you think will give more to their alma mater over time?


How does this impact alumni relations and advancement?

We have institutions who still believe in the shortsighted mantra of “asking early and often, so alumni get in the habit of giving.” Some consultants still encourage “Once you ask a new grad for a gift, be sure to continue asking at least once a year.”

And so we see 83% of institutions sending at least one gift solicitation to new grads within the first year of graduation. On average, institutions send 3.4 solicitations to their new grads during their first year.

This approach is gibberish!  But I’ve written a lot about that topic here and here and here, so I won’t belabor the point. 

But is it any wonder why:

  • 64% of alumni complain about how often they are solicited. And ten years ago, only 41% complained about too frequent solicitations
  • 60% of institutions struggle with the number of alumni requesting to be put on the “do not contact list” or “do not solicit” list.
  • The national alumni participation rate is roughly half that of 1990, when it was 18.1%. The rate of alumni giving has continued to decline for the last two decades.


The Heart of the Matter

I don’t think it can be repeated too often: alumni relations requires give and take, an exchange of value, and careful cultivation of goodwill. So unless you really don’t care about building lasting relationships, or you view alumni as mere resources to be exploited, plan your programs to attract and engage alumni with benefits that have meaning and value to them. 


Your Duty as Alumni Relations Officers

I’ll conclude with this: Alumni relations officers are the guardians of the institution’s connection with alumni.

Your alumni depend on you to be their advocate with the institution.

You are also stewards of alumni relationships for your institution’s future leaders, who will depend on you to have properly cultivated and engaged alumni over the years. If they have any hope of growing the institution in 10, 25 or even 50 years, you must be planting those seeds today.

Your stewardship is not just to assist the advancement team meet their yearly objectives. You have a responsibility to your institution’s legacy.

Are you taking an active role in advocating on behalf of your alumni, or are you beholden to the demands of the institutional fundraising mechanism?

Are your alumni engagement efforts focused on life-long engagement, or are you complicit in the practice of soliciting gifts as a form of cultivating alumni? (Soliciting is never a good cultivation plan.)

Are you protecting your alumni from an institution that may have lost sight of its long term objectives?  

Are you empowered to stand up for the institution’s long term interests?

Are you hacker or a cultivator?




Gary Toyn is a multi-published author, business writer and researcher. As an engagement & loyalty consultant for Access Development®, he blogs about alumni relations and advancement topics.


Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, institutional advancement, Customer Engagement, best practices

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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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