SUMMARY: Our recent survey of alumni and constituent professionals reveals these 7 uninspired practices that are downright blasphemous when it comes to alumni engagement. 

About a 5 minute read.  

Let’s face it. 

Many alumni professionals have struggled with low engagement for so long, you can’t really blame them for feeling like their alumni relations program has been damned to institutional purgatory.

It’s not easy to build a successful alumni organization. And it’s even harder to maintain sustainable engagement levels when your alumni are tempted by so many other types of programs that will occupy their time, attention, and resources.  

As experts in loyalty and engagement programs, we wanted to identify some of the key reasons why people disengage from organizations they once loved.

We recently launched a nationwide survey of all types of constituent/member-based organizations and their members. We included trade and professional associations, non-profit membership groups, alumni organizations, and unions.

Our findings offer many new insights into today's members, including a significant gap between what members want, and what leaders are willing to offer. (You can see the full study here.)

This study, along with other research we've conducted, provides new insights into the member/leader dynamic and applies to most all constituent-based groups.  But we’ve also identified some troubling trends that should be especially concerning to alumni relations/advancement professionals.

Using this data, here are my seven uninspired practices that are downright blasphemous when it comes to alumni engagement. While I hope you'll forgive my sinfully frequent references to heaven and hell, I’m sure you’ll be blessed if you avoid these 7 Deadly Sins of Alumni Engagement:


Deadly Sin #1:  Not Soliciting Alumni Feedback

A prideful disdain for alumni feedback is an unrighteous abomination.


Of all member and constituent-based groups, our recent study revealed that alumni leaders are the most out of touch with their constituents.  The gap in understanding between alumni/advancement leaders and their alumni is a massive 52%. That’s almost double the gap of other constituent-based organizations like trade/professional associations, unions, and other non-profit groups. This significant gap reveals a slovenly approach to meeting the needs of your alumni, and not keeping them engaged over time.  Our VAESE study of alumni relations professionals also reveals:

  • 42% of alumni relations professionals have never surveyed their alumni.
  • 19% do not use any tools whatsoever to measure the effectiveness of their engagement efforts.
  • 75% don’t use Net Promoter Score surveys.

To keep alumni engaged, alumni relations professionals should be frequently surveying their constituents, inviting their input, and making adjustments as a result of the feedback they receive. To learn more about alumni surveys, see this CASE article here.


Deadly Sin #2:  Imitating the Wrong Peer Organizations

The success of similar organizations may lead to envy and a desire to follow their example. But following the lead of the wrong organization may be the biggest sin of all.


Much can be gained by following the example of a peer organization. But choosing the wrong peer organization can lead to disastrous decisions with long-term consequences. Just because “other organizations do it,” doesn’t mean yours should too.

A great example relates to dues-paying alumni associations. The vast majority of successful dues-paying organizations are at larger schools, like those affiliated with Power 5 football conferences. Their success is due in large part to their national exposure, allowing them to develop a huge national following from fans who have never set foot on campus, or paid a dime in tuition.

Seeing the success of a dues paying program inspired many medium and small schools to follow suit. They created their own dues-paying program and hoped for similar success, but the results were a disaster. Many are still stuck with a dues-paying structure and no elegant way to end it. (See our research here.)


Deadly Sin #3:   Ignoring the Need to Produce Content

Alumni crave information from their alma mater, but ignoring content to focus on less engaging programs can be a glutton of your resources, leading to widespread alumni apathy.


Our research confirms that content is 29% more effective than any other engagement category. And it’s not necessarily just the slick, full-color campus magazine alumni want.  Good content is targeted, personally relevant communications and information sent to alumni via digital/social media and print.

For your alumni to get value from your organization's content, it must be stimulating, enlightening or entertaining. Good content is not a filler, but strategically and skillfully planned and executed. So, why bother with content creation? Let’s start with how well content engages GOLDS and Millennials:

Effective content creation includes: 1) Frequent and meaningful communication with your alumni, (not just when you’re soliciting gifts or talking about gifts.) 2) Maintaining a consistent social media presence to keep alumni engaged.  3) Using email to its full capacity, (not just sending an occasional email when you can get around to it.) The average alumni organization sends 2.4 emails per month, but most membership organizations send up to four emails per week. Where does your organization fall within that range? Are you sending emails often enough?  

The value of content also ties into all the benefits you offer. This leads us to our next deadly sin: ignoring member benefits. 


Deadly Sin #4:   Being Stingy with Your Benefits

Being greedy and refusing to invest in alumni benefits transgresses the law of reciprocity.

The law of reciprocity says basically “When someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return, and usually, you reciprocate with a gesture far more generous than their original good deed.  

That’s why successful organizations spend considerable time and resources building a suite of benefits, focusing on relevance, immediate value, and ease of use. Floundering organizations ignore or neglect their benefits, yet still rush out to build their acquisition program before the benefits are fully in place. When you do a good job of building out your alumni benefits, alumni will quickly recognize when the value of being affiliated exceeds the cost of being affiliated. This leads to lowered sensitivity about the cost of being engaged, and alumni become increasingly loyal as a result.

Our recent study underscores the fact that constituents have been conditioned to demand value from the organizations they affiliate with. Whether it’s from their Amazon Prime® membership, their frequent flier program, or their credit card points program. Without paying attention to the overall value you offer, you’ll struggle to attract, engage and compel your alumni to stay involved.

The study also revealed a direct correlation between the quality of benefits and alumni engagement.  Groups offering high-quality benefits have higher alumni engagement. Groups that cheap-out and offer low-quality benefits suffer from higher alumni disengagement.  It’s really that simple.

Value attracts attention. Value leads to engagement.  


Deadly Sin #5:   Focusing on Short-Term Rather Than a Lifetime Relationship.

A lust for short-term revenue at the expense of life-long relationships can evoke disaffection, leading alumni down forbidden paths.


Take, for example, an alumni’s first gift to the annual fund. This initial alumni transaction is just the starting point, not the primary objective. Creating a life-long relationship with an alum is more important than any short-term revenue generated from the gift.

Successful alumni organizations aim to engage alumni over the long haul, rather than just to generate operational revenue. That’s because constituent or membership-based relationships are like a marriage. The expectation should be that it will last a lifetime. But just like any successful marriage, the relationship takes a lot of work if it’s going to last. Both sides must contribute, and the relationship must adapt and grow over time. If there is little or no value in the relationship, the member will eventually feel used, neglected or betrayed, and the separation can often be bitter. Just talk to someone who has left a membership organization after a long relationship. Ask them why they left, and you’ll likely unleash a tirade of strong emotions, and it will usually involve feelings of betrayal, whether real or perceived.

See our recent article Stop Abusing Your Alumni’s Altruism (and Start Offering More Value)


Deadly Sin #6:  Ignoring Fundraising Fatigue

Oversoliciting alumni is a slothful waste of time and money


Higher education administrators have come to accept the state of the perpetual fundraising campaign as the new normal.  This study shows that 81% of AVPs and advancement professionals admit they are either in a campaign or about to enter one.  While major gifts and planned gifts are the focus, data mining and other techniques are being successfully implemented to extract an increasing level of gifts from alumni. And because frequent asking seems to have no immediate consequences, solicitations increase.

But this article reveals an amazing disconnect when it comes to many advancement professionals in higher education. It cites the common practice of ignoring relationship building, disregard for alumni who aren’t major gift donors, and an almost obscene disregard for building the alumni donor pipeline. Consequently, many institutions have dismal alumni donor attrition rates that hover around 75%.  Do you know the donor attrition rate at your institution?  Is it a closely held secret? As alumni relations officers, it's your obligation to know if your alumni are suffering from fundraising fatigue.  

Talking about fundraising or donor fatigue is given only cursory attention from development/advancement leaders, as the pressure from deans, AVPs, and administrators seems to be more about burning through the donor list, than building a sustainable donor base.

Our research shows a compelling correlation between over-soliciting alumni and losing long-term revenue potential. For institutions that solicit first-year graduates more than twice in the first year (the average institution sends 3.4 solicitations in the first year), they have alumni opt-out rates more than double that of institutions that don’t solicit first-year grads.  (Opting out means alumni have asked to be listed permanently as ““Do Not Call,” “Do Not Contact” or “Do Not Solicit).

See our article here that breaks down the costs of permanently losing thousands of alumni who become fed up with their institutions' constant campaigns, constant solicitations, and constant references to how much money they’ve recently extracted from their alumni.

I'm not against alumni giving.  On the contrary. But too many institutions are burning their bridges with their alumni, and they don't seem to care about the long-term consequences. 


Deadly Sin #7:  Ignoring Your Introverted Alumni

Alumni organizations that only offer programs for their outgoing, social, and extroverted alumni are ignoring half their audience, and will ultimately incur the wrath of their less outspoken alumni.


Western culture favors extroverts. Our education system favors extroverts. Alumni professionals are almost always extroverts. This is likely the reason why most alumni programming focuses on attracting fellow extroverts. Events like club/chapter events, mixers, socials, happy hours, reunions, networking events, career workshops, career fairs, 5-Ks, recognition events/banquets, etc., all favor extroverts.

We extroverts tend to think that almost all other people are like us, or at least aspire to be like us. That bias is manifested in how we hire, and how we intend to grow our alumni programs. But are we considering how much of our programming will attract and engage the other half of your alumni population, the introverts?

So what’s an introvert?  Let’s start with what it is not. Introverts are not just shy or reclusive. In a nutshell, introverts gather strength from low-stimulation environments. They tend to think about the future more than extroverts. They can also appear somewhat submissive and can come off as uncompromising or even arrogant at times. They’re not averse to socializing, but do so more cautiously, and after they’ve had time to assess the social landscape and the potential risks.

For introverts, being around people isn’t energizing, it's draining. Being alone or with close friends or family is energizing. So for introverted alumni, attending an alumni social or reunion could be exhausting, and a risky and potentially negative experience.

Fortunately, you don’t have to create programs for just introverts or extroverts.  The most effective programs appeal to both. The VAESE alumni relations benchmarking study indicates alumni programs that fare the best, are programs that don’t focus on extroverts. Such programs include compelling digital and print content (See Deadly Sin #3); Online career services like LinkedIn communities, online job listings, webinars, online networking, etc., all serve both introverted and extroverted alumni. See our full article here: Stop Slapping Half Your Alumni in the Face.


Click to get your free ebook


Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni, institutional advancement, membership marketing, best practices, value proposition

Subscribe to Email Updates

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.

Trending Posts