After two decades of alumni and constituent relations, here are four important lessons I've had to learn, unlearn, or relearn.

About a 4 minute read


It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

--Mark Twain


After a decade or so in higher education alumni relations, I recently celebrated ten years of association with Access Development, the parent company of Alumni Access. It’s been a gratifying journey to associate with so many creative, funny, smart, goofy, insightful and dedicated people. 

My current role allows me to consult with a wide range of constituent-based organizations. Some are newly launched membership groups, some are medium and large alumni associations, and others are huge member organizations affiliated with Fortune 100 companies. 

As it relates to higher education alumni relations and engagement, my journey has allowed me to relearn and unlearn many important lessons.  Here are my top four:


A few lessons I keep relearning:

Alumni Relations/Advancement professionals tend to distrust vendors

I have a unique perspective in alumni relations.  I’ve sat at my desk in the alumni office fielding calls from vendors wanting to sell me their latest and greatest product or service. I’ve written RFPs, sat through countless vendor demonstrations, chaired selection committees when choosing a vendor, and cancelled programs that didn’t succeed as planned.

I now sit on the other side of the desk. While I don’t have any sales responsibilities, I do assist our sales team when responding to inquiries and RFPs. I also interact with alumni relations professionals who are looking for ways to better engage their alumni. 

I’ll admit, in my position as an alumni director, I was initially dubious of most vendors. I had a bias against sales people. Especially the pushy and annoyingly cocky ones. But as I look back, my lack of trust was usually unjustified. In fact, I was most successful when I developed a trusting relationship with a vendor rep who had my alumni and my career in mind.  They knew I had to stick my neck out to become their internal advocate for their product or service, so they supported me throughout the long, often tedious purchasing process. There was no way I could ever know enough to be an expert on each product or service that came my way. But I succeeded when I found a partner, not just a vendor.


Institutions that talk too much about themselves tend to have less engaged alumni. 

Most higher ed institutions have a marketing or external communication team. Their goals are often about branding the institution, and less about attracting and engaging alumni to give of their time, talent and treasure. Yet this team of marketing professionals often control the school's communication apparatus, so they're eager to gain as many impressions as possible for their message.  But when alumni only hear about the debate team or the new associate dean of science, those messages will usually lack relevance to the majority of alumni.  

Internally focused messages must be used sparingly, and only when the message has broad appeal and relevance. Otherwise, try sending such focused messages to a more targeted group of interested alumni. Aim to generate meaningful content that serves the needs of a broad alumni audience. In addition to providing entertaining and educational content, deliver helpful services and benefits that can attract and engage them.

Likewise, be careful about how you brag about your fundraising successes. Your advancement team may justify their bragging by claiming it shows how much alumni support their alma mater. But in reality, many alumni are put off by such boasts. Many become less inclined to give if they know your institution is flush with cash. Alumni want to give where they can make the biggest impact.


Alumni professionals are wonderfully collaborative

One of the greatest aspects of being in alumni relations, is the incredible level collaboration, teamwork and idea-sharing that occurs. This level of collaboration is unique among constituent-based organizations, and I’ve worked with quite a few. Yes, I’ve seen other types of organizations share ideas among themselves, but higher education alumni professionals are the champions. It’s one of the things I miss most about being in alumni relations. I miss bouncing off ideas with, and learning from so many talented and intelligent people.

From a vendor perspective, it could be quite intimidating to know that alumni professionals are openly sharing product information and offerings between institutions. But I find it refreshing. Even empowering. That’s because only the best vendors with the most value can make it through the gauntlet of scrutiny. In such cases, widespread alumni collaboration can favor the best vendors and programs, as a good reputation tends to spread quickly.


The biggest thing I need to unlearn: Failure is awful.

If you’ll excuse my over-generalization, I find that risk taking is not a sought-after trait among many who hire alumni relations professionals. Those with hiring authority will usually seek out employees who won’t challenge the status quo. Unknowingly, they tend to value traits like conformity and predictability, as opposed to employees who are movers and shakers, imaginative, and inventive.

That being said, I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit that thrives among a growing number of alumni relations professionals. I see an increasing number of alumni folks who are taking calculated risks, and value the learning that comes when results are disappointing.

Outside of higher education, and especially in business, risk taking is mandatory. Those who are good at risk taking are admired. What I’ve had to unlearn is my aversion to risk.  I’ve had to learn how to cope better with risk taking and the potential for failure. 

Since leaving higher education, I’ve watched risk-takers thrive, despite making decisions that, at the outset, don’t appear to have any hope of succeeding. But succeed they do. 

Now I know this sounds like one of those irritating and over-used LinkedIn memes, but nearly all the risk takers I've come to know, find failure as an opportunity to learn. Most important, their superiors don’t punish risk. Instead, they encourage bold risk taking because it’s the quickest and most effective path to success.

I wish risk taking came natural to me. But it doesn't. Nevertheless, I love it when I see you take bold risks and succeed.  



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Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni