The 2020 VAESE alumni relations benchmarking study shows some interesting trends. Here are a few stats to whet your appetite before the study is released in the coming weeks.  About a 4 minute read.



As a data geek, when I look at all the data from the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study, I get a little giddy. The challenge is making sense of it so you can make informed programming and business decisions.

I’ve noticed some interesting stats that alumni relations professionals may find interesting, if not informative and enlightening. As alumni relations offices world-wide struggle for relevance and connection with their alumni, I’ve got a little bit of good news, some not so good news, and some news that’s, well, downright ugly.

For the most part, I’ll give you the stats and I’ll let you judge for yourself its relevance to your program.  Some stats are such big news that I can’t resist adding my two-cents worth of analysis or comment. Other stats may not look too good on the surface, but maybe you understand the underlying reasons that can shed some light on a particular stat. If so, I’d love to have you start a conversation.

For those of you who are new to the VAESE Alumni Benchmarking study, the 2020 report is the third biennial study. We launched this study in 2015 primarily because very little research was available specifically about higher ed alumni relations. Most of the available research relates to advancement and fundraising matters.  We were able to collect data from around the world (albeit 92% of participants were from North America), and compiled comparative data relating to things like alumni budgets, staffing levels, emails metrics, communication and engagement models, etc.

Finding alumni relations specific research isn’t easy. Of those few studies that do exist, they are usually prohibitively expensive, whether by virtue of the costs of membership or the actual survey results are expensive. So unless you’re affiliated with a large, well established alumni relations organization, it’s hard to find actionable data that can help you make informed business decisions.  

Our goal was to provide reliable data and analysis free of charge to those who participated in the study.  Our last study has been viewed, downloaded or shared by more than ten thousand alumni professionals and board members.  I can’t tell you how many times the VAESE study has been cited in articles, research and presentations, and I am frequently called on to write or speak about the study and its analysis.

Because companies and organizations rely on a stream of income generated from selling their research, we’ve taken some heat from critics who don’t like our approach of giving away our data. However, we won’t be intimidated or deterred.

As a matter of full disclosure, I am a former alumni director and have spent almost two decades with my hands in higher ed alumni relations. At my current role at Alumni Access, one of my many responsibilities is to conduct this survey and complete the related analysis. I am tasked with providing reliable and rigorous research data to Access Development, the parent company of Alumni Access and the sole funding source for this study. We use this data to identify trends within the industry, and to better understand the issues facing our many clients.  

Many of the statistics I’ll show you reflect important trends we’ve identified by comparing the results of the current study, with data from the last two studies.

Let’s start with the trends in alumni relations budgets.


  • Alumni budgets at 72% of institutions have not seen an increase in at least the last five years.
  • 23% of alumni organizations report an increase in their budget within the last two years.
  • Overall general alumni budgets (to include both salaries and programming) grew nationally just 2.01% since 2015. When accounting for inflation during those five years, the average alumni relations budget has experienced a net loss of -8.6% in buying power.
  • The average programming budgets (budget for alumni programs only, excluding salaries) we likewise see a slight increase, just 2.25% since 2015. But when factoring in inflation, programming budgets have fallen -7.16% in the past five years.
The Alumni Database
  • The average number of known living alumni per institution has increased 16% since 2017.
  • The number of addressable alumni has not kept pace, showing an increase of just 4.5%.
  • The average number of alumni with a deliverable email on file has increased just 2.2%.
  • Since 2015, alumni organizations have experienced a 15% increase in the number of alumni who have asked to be put on the “do-not-call” or “do-not-contact” list (referred to as “opting out” of contact with their alma mater, or otherwise known as the “churn rate.”)
  • 46% of alumni organizations have at least 10% of their alumni who have opted-out of contact with their alma mater.
  • The number of institutions with this high (>10%) opt-out rate has increased 79% since 2015.

For a bit of good news:

  • The 2020 survey will reveals a 20% increase in the number alumni organizations that now track their churn rate. In 2015 only two-thirds 66% of alumni organizations were tracking their opt-out rate. That number has increased to 79% in 2020.

If you are among the 21% of organizations that still don’t track your opt-out rate, see this article here.  


Alumni Engagement

  • 94% of all alumni organizations do not offer their alumni any benefits, or they see poor results from the benefits they do offer.

Wow. Just wow.  Can we at least agree that it’s imperative to offer your alumni some type of incentive in order to entice them to become engaged?

  • The percentage of institutions who invest nothing in alumni benefits and services is 47%.
  • Only 11% of alumni organizations report to investing annually in procuring benefits and services for their alumni. (whether dues-paying or not).
  • Just 6% of alumni organizations report that their benefits have a strong influence on alumni engagement.
  • Not surprisingly, 82% of alumni professionals estimate their alumni would rate their benefits and services as having little or no value.

Wow again. These stats truly have me baffled. The number of institutions who refuse to offer their alumni any benefits has remained static for the last five years.  In fact, we recently conducted research of all types of constituent based organizations, from membership organizations, trade organizations, unions, you name it. While a few of these organizations don’t have much in common with higher education alumni organizations, of those that do, they too are struggling with engagement, acquisition and retention.

Off all these types of organizations, higher education alumni organizations were the least likely to offer benefits to their constituents, and the large percentage relied on “alumni loyalty and philanthropy” as their primary means of engagement. I’ve preached about his until I’m blue in the face, but somehow the message isn’t getting through. If you want to see the research, here’s a link to the study: Bridging the Leadership/Membership Gap

Of those organizations that understand the correlations between offering compelling benefits and alumni engagement, our study revealed some interesting trends when it comes to capacity to attract and engage alumni.  The study reveals the following:

  • The impact of Clubs/chapters/reunions is trending downward, dropping 25% from 2015.
  • The impact of career services is trending upward, jumping 33% since 2015.
  • The impact of closed online alumni communities is trending down, dropping 23% since 2015.
  • The impact of unguided alumni travel programs has dropped 57% since 2015.
  • The impact of a printed institutional magazines has remained mostly flat since 2015, showing a decrease in impact by just 1%.



Of the many types of communication channels alumni organizations use, Email, Facebook, and LinkedIn are used at essentially the same levels as 2015.  Email is used by 99.7% of organizations, Facebook by 96%, and LinkedIn by 83%.

But of all the other communication tools/channels alumni organizations are using, we’re seeing an upward trend in impact and usage for the following:

  • SMS (text messaging) has increased 233% (Going from 6% of institutions using this method in 2015 to 19% in 2020)
  • Using a dedicated mobile app has increased 53% (from 15% in 2015 to 23% in 2020)
  • Usage of Instagram has increased 30%, going from 56% in 2015 to 75% in 2020.

The following communication tools/channels are trending downward in their impact and usage:

  • Offering a private online community has dropped by 56%. In 2015, 45% of alumni organizations reported having a closed online community. Today that number has dropped to just 20% of institutions.
  • Publication of Digital/Electronic magazines has dropped 26% (Going from 65% in 2015 to 48% in 2020)
  • Use of Twitter has dropped 12%, with 72% of organization now using that platform, as compared to 82% in 2015.
  • Direct mail usage as also dropped 9%, where 78% of organizations now send direct mail pieces, as opposed to 87% in 2015.

These stats are not too surprising to me, except for the huge drop in private electronic communities, many that offer tools to help alumni engage.    

What are your thoughts about this new data and trends?  Does any of it surprise you? Please comment below.


Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni, alumni benefits, alumni discount programs, alumni career services, VAESE

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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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