Here are 5 "easy" steps to smother alumni engagement. This tongue-in-cheek article is based on actual data from our most recent VAESE research, showing common practices being used by alumni organizations everywhere.

(About a 4 minute read)

I recently presented some of our findings from the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study to group of alumni and advancement professionals. We discussed many topics related to alumni relations, advancement and fundraising. But without question, I've had more feedback about our research into the most common practices that smother alumni engagement.

So, here's a list of five ways alumni organizations are successfully smothering their alumni engagement. 


1-Soliciting Alumni Early and Often (and Ignoring Cultivation/Romancing)

A wonderful CASE article references the ‘4Rs” of fundraising: Research, Romance, Request, and Recognition.  As a best practice, it states 60% of the fundraising process should be spent on romancing alumni. However, our research clearly indicates that most institutions ignore this best practice. 70% of institutions solicit new graduates twice or more within the first year. Some institutions send as many as 10 solicitations that first year. Among all institutions, the average is 3.4 solicitations of new grads within the first year.

Solicitation is NOT romancing or cultivation. Soliciting is not materially contributing to the relationship…it’s expending from the relationship. In the immortal words of Sammy Hagar (and popularized by Aussie 80’s heartthrob Rick Springfield): 

"This one-way love affair ain’t fair,

It ain’t no fair to me.

It's all give and take


I can't take it you see"


Lyrics written by: SAMMY HAGAR,  Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc., Performed by RICK SPRINGFIELD. Copyright owned by their rightful owners. 

Your alumni can’t take it anymore either. And they're disconnecting in huge numbers.  On average 40% of institutions report a worsening opt-out rate over the last five years. Only 6% report that fewer alumni are opting-out over that same time period.

What would you say to your daughter if her boyfriend was all about taking and didn't give anything to their relationship? Because I have three daughters, I know what I would say: stop dating a jerk. 

If your organization is all about a one-way relationship, stop being a jerk!

What's the financial impact of over-soliciting alumni and not giving anything in return? It bodes well for institutions that show restraint and wait until their alumni are properly cultivated.

Our research shows that institutions that don't solicit new grads in the first year have an opt-out rate of 7% over the past five years. But institutions that do solicit their new grads have an opt-out rate more of than 16% - a rate more than double institutions that show restraint. (See all of our research here on this topic here.)

This leads to our next step in how to smother alumni engagement.


2-Ignoring Disaffected Alumni, and Not Tracking Opt-out Trends

Your opt-out rate measures the number of alums who ask to be permanently placed on the “do not mail” “do not contact” or “do not solicit” list. (An unsubscribe from email is not an opt-out). Opt-out rates can be an indicator of your program’s lack of value or relevance, over-soliciting (see above) or otherwise annoying your alumni.

Our research shows that at least 33% of alumni organizations don’t track opt-outs. Your alumni engagement programs can’t grow without knowing if your alumni are unhappy with you or not.

Opt-outs are expensive, especially if you are losing established givers/engaged alumni. The costs of acquiring or replacing donors/members/volunteers are expensive. Many organizations spend as much as 80% of their budgets to acquire new donors/members.

By lowering your opt-out rate, it can mean a significant increase in revenue. This study shows boosting retention by 5% can boost revenue by 25-95%. But you first need to know if you have a good or bad opt-out trend.

Once you know how you’re trending, it’s also important to have a process of repairing strained relationships.


3-Making Programming Decisions Based on Guesswork Rather Than Data

Our research shows that of all alumni organizations: 

  • 42% have never surveyed their alumni.
  • 19% do not use any tools whatsoever to measure the effectiveness of their engagement efforts.
  • 70% to not track ROI (return on investment or amount spent vs. revenue) to evaluate the success or failure of their programs.
  • 21% don’t monitor digital response rates (such as visits, clicks, likes, etc.)
  • 26% don’t measure social media amplification (such as re-posts, shares, re-tweets, etc.)
  • 75% don’t use Net Promoter Score surveys.

Getting actionable data requires an initial investment of time and effort. But it pays off when you can make decisions based on reliable data, and not be handicapped by wrong assumptions that often result in wasted time and resources.

If you haven’t surveyed your alumni, use a free or low-cost tool like Survey Monkey to conduct an online survey and measure your alumni satisfaction. Find out what types of benefits alumni would like. However, asking your alumni how they feel, and doing nothing with that data, is a betrayal of trust in a relationship. It’s like telling your spouse you’ll put the coffee cup in the dishwasher, then turning around and putting it in the sink. At some point, asking what alumni want, and then ignoring their feedback is a terrible way to build a relationship.

Check out this page from CASE offering questions and sample materials for creating an alumni survey.  You can also learn more about email and social media metrics here.


4-Eating Your Seed Corn 

I grew up in a small farming community and learned some sage advice from many wise local farmers: “Don’t eat your seed corn.” It’s a metaphor that relates to planning for the future. Seed corn is what farmers used to plant next year’s crop. If you are foolish and eat your seed corn, rather than preparing for the future, you may live well for a short period, but the long-term consequence would lead to disaster.

Yet many institutions do just that. They ignore the future of the institution in favor of meeting short-term revenue goals. They “burn” through alumni until these alumni eventually opt out of being contacted or solicited. Those disaffected alumni who opt-out are considered the unfortunate cost of doing business; the natural consequence of having to raise money to keep the institution running smoothly.

Creating a life-long relationship is far more important than generating short-term revenue. That’s why whenever an alum initially gives/joins/volunteers, it should be viewed as just the starting point, not the primary objective. Your overarching goal should be on establishing a long-term relationship.  

This focus on life-long engagement requires an organizational cultural shift.  For most schools, the focus is on minimizing alumni dissatisfaction; doing just enough to keep alumni from complaining. Instead, the emphasis should be on fostering authentic, meaningful, long-term relationships, and developing a pool of “super alumni” who are willing to champion your institution on your behalf. This approach takes more effort and patience. But the consequence is a more stable long-term growth trajectory, with an alumni base that actively promotes the institution to others.

5-Ignoring the Need to Offer Alumni Benefits

Offering alumni benefits is NOT just for dues-paying organizations.  Alumni expectations of their alma mater have changed over time. You can no longer assume your alumni will be loyal for life. That’s because the competition for your alumni’s attention and loyalty is increasing. You are fooling yourself if you think your alumni organization is not in competition with other loyalty/membership programs.

Your alumni (like all consumers) see on average 5,000+ advertisements/ brand exposures per day. Of those, 362 will be attempts to engage (using some form of a call-to-action.) Consumers respond, on average, to 12 of those 362 attempts to engage. 

With such a concentration of marketing effort focused on your alumni, each year consumers are enticed to join an average of 29 loyalty programs per person. They include clubs for grocery stores, airlines, drugstores, credit cards, retailers, restaurants, etc., all of which consume the time, energy and money of your alumni.   

Vying for the attention of your alumni are countless other clubs, groups, and organizations. That's why the benefits you offer your alumni must offer real value.  Value attracts attention. Value leads to engagement. Therefore, offering your alumni meaningful value is the first step to engagement.  

The value of the benefits you offer is a key deciding factor for most alumni who consider whether or not to engage. As consumers, we subconsciously calculate the value of being engaged with any type of organization, whether it’s a church, a frequent flyer program, or an alumni organization. In the absence of value, the costs of affiliation eventually becomes the most important issue.  That’s why the average duration of any membership lasts only five years or less.

Alumni will be resistant to the costs associated with engagement, (i.e. giving or joining) if you neglect or ignore your value proposition. Too many alumni associations under-deliver on the promise of alumni benefits, when they should be over-delivering on their benefits in order to keep alumni happy and engaged over time.

The VAESE study revealed that 55% of alumni organizations are “not focused on offering alumni any significant benefits,” or instead “appeal to the philanthropic generosity or loyalty of alumni/ae to (get them to) engage, join, or give.”

So when alumni recognize that the value of being affiliated with their alumni organization exceeds the cost, they will grow far less sensitive to being asked to give.

Increased alumni loyalty and giving will be the natural result. 


(You can download the  2020 VAESE study here)


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This article was originally published in 2017, but has been updated.


Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni benefits, Customer Engagement, best practices