An excerpt from the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study shows disheartening results of a growing number of struggling alumni organizations. The primary culprit appears to be an ignorance or unwillingness to follow common best practices in business, marketing, and alumni engagement. 

(About a 5 minute read)


If you are a professional employed in the business of attracting and engaging your alumni, the 2nd Annual VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study will provide new data to help you do your job better and make smarter business decisions. This study is a snap-shot of what’s happening in the alumni engagement industry at both a granular and a higher level. It can help us all identify trends that matter and those that don’t.

(UPDATE: You can download a free copy here)

I want to share an excerpt from the study, and offer a peek into some insights we’ve gleaned from reviewing the mounds of data we collected: 

Begin Excerpt:

The VAESE study includes 866 completed responses from 581 unique institutions world-wide, representing alumni professionals in 17 countries on five continents. Notwithstanding the international participation, 91% of respondents hail from institutions within the United States, with all 50 states represented.

All types and sizes of institutions participated. Some report an alumni database exceeding 750,000, while others have fewer than 5,000 total alumni. 

We’re pleased to see that the vast majority of large institutions took the survey, with 94% of all NCAA Division 1 institutions participating. Additionally, of the 65 schools comprising the Power 5 Conferences, 85% of these institutions participated. These schools represent 65 institutions that comprise the American Athletic, Big East, Big 12, Southeastern, and Pac-12 conferences. They are unique because of their size, budgets, reach, and media exposure, Last year we lacked widespread participation from these schools, and consequently we found instances where some of the data was a little skewed as a result.  

Overall, the new data reveals that for most of large alumni organizations, the times are pretty good.  Budgets, membership, engagement, staffing, all show trends heading in the right direction. 

But things aren’t quite so rosy for medium and small alumni organizations.

Our data shows that a number of changes are having a big influence on how alumni professionals accomplish their jobs. Not only is technology having a greater impact on alumni relations, but complaints persist about staffing and funding shortages. Consequently, many executives are forced to make difficult decisions about engagement and fundraising priorities.

But the data suggests something more insidious is occurring beyond a shortage of staff or resources.  We see ample evidence of alumni and advancement officers who are struggling to execute many of the basic fundamentals of alumni/advancement. (See a list in my most recent article.)

Too many decision makers are leading their organizations based on faulty assumptions or even wishful thinking, rather than using sound business, marketing, and alumni engagement practices.

Here are a few statistical nuggets as evidence of this sad reality:

Among all higher education survey respondents, 70% of alumni organizations state their top goal for the next year is to increase alumni engagement. However, of those specific schools who proclaim that engaging alumni is their highest priority:

  • 5% don’t have an alumni website.
  • 17% are struggling with database administration, as measured by having contact information for less than 50% of their alumni or email addresses for fewer than 30% of alumni.
  • 19% do not use any tools whatsoever to measure the effectiveness of their engagement efforts.
  • 24% don’t offer their alumni any type of career services benefit.
  • 29% admit to having no dedicated strategy to boost alumni engagement (That stat is self-reported, and likely much higher)
  • 42% have never surveyed their alumni.
  • 46% choose not to offer their alumni any benefits, but instead appeal to their alumni’s philanthropic generosity and/or loyalty as their primary method of getting their alumni to engage, join or give.
  • 70% to not track ROI (return on investment, or amount spent vs. revenue) to evaluate the success or failure of their programs.

Are decision makers lacking basic business skills and/or experience, or is something else going on here? I’m not 100% sure, but it’s disheartening to see so many organizations struggle like this.

We see institutions making frequent bad decisions like:

It’s not just an issue among small schools. Larger institutions can struggle too.

 End Excerpt

So what’s at the root of this phenomenon?

My theory, in part, is based on survey comments and other related data. As I see It, there appears to be an increasing number of professionals who are attracted to higher education, but who bristle at the notion that higher education (and alumni engagement specifically) is a business. Somehow, they believe there is dishonor in operating their organization with entrepreneurial motives.  

It’s an age-old conflict that has confronted many professionals such as physicians, charity workers and clergy who likewise are engaged in the business of doing good, yet must still measure their success by a crass balance sheet.  

But having altruistic motives shouldn’t preclude you from using good business practices. In fact, using good methods will enhance your ability to fulfill your mission. You’ll have more resources to help your institution grow, and you’ll be helping more alumni on their journey to career and personal success. 

The VAESE study offers over 60 pages of data to compare your institution with others your same size, organizational structure etc.  If you know how your organization compares with your peers, you’ll know where you have room for growth, and where to focus more time and resources.

I’d like to know what you think. Do you know of an institution that ignores sound business, marketing, and alumni engagement practices?  Are there other reasons why many alumni organizations struggle to follow good business tactics?

Let me know your thoughts.  

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

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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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