Alumni and development operations are more frequently becoming integrated, but is integration taking a toll on alumni engagement?
About a 5 minute read
This article has been updated using the most recent, 2020 VAESE Alumni Relations benchmarking survey data. You can see that article here:
Data from the VAESE alumni survey data show some interesting stories.
As I've discovered new stories, I've noticed just how much alumni relations is changing and evolving, especially over the past decade. If only we had the VAESE data twenty years ago, and we could use empirical data to better identify trends.
One of the most significant trends I’ve found from this data (although not too surprising), is the increasing assimilation of alumni relations and fundraising operations. Here are some of the numbers:
- 56% of alumni organizations report being fully integrated with fundraising/development operations, and
- 12% report working toward or having discussed integration with fundraising/development.
- Just 5% of alumni organizations are fundamentally opposed to integrating their alumni engagement programs with development/fundraising.
When you break it down further, private institutions have a much higher rate of integration than public institutions, (76% vs. 54%). Smaller schools with under 100K alumni are also more integrated (70%) than schools with more than 100K alumni (56%). Interestingly, for alumni organizations with a dues-paying structure, only 35% are integrated with their fundraising office, while 73% of schools with a non-dues-paying organization are fully integrated.
The data suggests that at many institutions, the effect of assimilation has resulted in alumni relations becoming subordinate to the fundraising/development/advancement operations.
Here are a few more interesting stats to consider:
- Only 11% of senior alumni relations executives report directly to the president/chancellor of the institution. (While not a direct indication of subordination, still interesting nonetheless.)
- 70% of alumni relations executives report to the Vice President/Vice Chancellor, which in many cases has oversight responsibilities for a much larger staffed fundraising operation.
- 90% of alumni organizations are dependent or interdependent on their institution for financial support.
- Just 10% of alumni organizations are autonomous or independent of their institution.
- 82% of institutions send one or more gift solicitations to new grads within the first year of graduation, leaving just 19% that do not solicit new grads. (Again, not a direct indication of subordination, but shows a willingness to forego cultivation in lieu of solicitation.)
- One-in-four institutions are seeing alumni opt-out rates range from 15-39% over the past five years.
What’s the problem with alumni relations programs being assimilated by institutional fundraising?
On the surface, it’s not inherently problematic.
But if any of these issues start to happen, it can become a significant problem:
- When alumni who haven’t yet given are treated or feel as though they are second-class citizens.
- When fundraising objectives replace alumni engagement objectives.
- When alumni perceive that giving money is the only acceptable means of supporting their alma mater.
- When performance evaluations of executive administrators are measured heavily by fundraising metrics.
- When alumni gift solicitations become the institution’s de facto alumni engagement program.
Alumni and development must be equal partners. After all, they're working toward the same goal. But for alumni relations professionals, if you see any of the above issues occurring at your institution, it’s time to sound the alarm and stick up for your profession. Executives who are focused primarily on fundraising (at the expense of alumni engagement) need to hear about the critical need for quality alumni relations programming, and how it can impact alumni engagement and giving.
My experience in working with hundreds of alumni and member-based organizations is this: before organizations can enjoy long-term financial success, it’s necessary to 1) Build trust and respect with their constituents; 2) Provide authentic value their constituents cannot find elsewhere; and 3) Help them succeed both personally and professionally. And all this must happen before constituents are ever hit up to give or to spend more money.
These are the realities I’ve learned after decades in the loyalty and relationship-building business. And it’s increasingly necessary in today’s politically fractured and complicated economic environment.
It’s not just my opinion. I’ve got the data to prove it.
(The second article in this series is here)
I welcome your comments.