How to win at surveying your alumni


There are probably two things we can safely conclude from the pervasiveness of customer satisfaction surveys: one, they must be very useful to the organisations that commission them, and two: it’s getting harder to make a survey stand out.

At some point nearly every Higher Education institution will wind up wondering how to plan an alumni survey (or how to improve their results), so I thought I would collate a few tips from personal experience. For my sins, I have now been involved in two full scale quantitative alumni survey projects, co-ordinated a qualitative donor satisfaction survey and have designed and delivered countless satisfaction and engagement surveys to similar audiences. And this is what I’ve learned…

Deciding on the survey questions is the hardest part. But here’s how you can do it well:

  1. Know your objectives. There is no escaping that no matter what method you use, surveys are almost always time consuming and expensive. When the dust has settled, it will be important to show the benefit you’ve received. Is the survey mainly to collect updated contact details? Or is it to measure the quality of the communications that alumni receive? Or perhaps it’s to identify prospects for the telethon programme? Having a keen eye on the benefits of the survey to your team or institution will help you to streamline the questions asked (no bun fights please!) and decide whether you want to do it again in the future.
  2. Determine your follow-up strategy while the survey questions are being decided. Working in parallel on these two aspects makes a lot of sense. Firstly, you can easily remove a question from the survey if your team has no ability to process or use the results while they’re fresh. Secondly, you can allow the teams leading the response to have a say in how the question is worded. For example, if you’re asking your alumni whether they are interested in donating to various causes, the fundraising teams should help you determine the list of possibilities.
  3. Get help from experts. Sometimes no matter how persuasively you put your point across, there is no substitute for the opinion of the paid-for expert. Market research is a specialised area and there are many agencies and consultants you can use to help you keep the number of questions to a minimum and phrase them like a pro.

Make it as easy as possible for your alumni to complete the survey. What I really mean is:

  1. Give them options. Emailing your alumni a personal link to an online survey is a good start (bonus – you can link their response to their ID number with this method!). A paper survey for those you don’t hold an email address for will help toward achieving your contact detail update goals. I’ve also found that a generic version of the survey online (no pre-filled details, extra questions to help you identify the respondent later in the database) is useful for promoting on social media. The generic survey has several other benefits which I won’t go into here – think back-up for unforeseen technical difficulties.
  2. Send a few reminders. At least one reminder for the online folk half way through the survey period, and one right near the deadline will give you a boost in your responses.
  3. Think about your user-journey online. Map the process the alum will go through to access the survey via all online methods (email, website, social) to make sure it’s as efficient and obvious as possible. One recent survey I worked on had a riddle to solve at the start due to technical limitations in the survey software – and you can bet that influenced the response rate! One of the best ways to improve the journey is to test it out with colleagues and friends and schedule sufficient time and multiple review rounds for this activity.

The survey’s not over until it’s over. And that’s when you’ve:

  1. Analysed the results. Don’t just produce high-level summary tables – if you have IDs, what other information do you have about your alumni to combine the responses with in order to really understand the feedback? Also, think carefully about how you can add the responses to your database not only so you can analyse them in different ways at a later date, but also so that they can be quickly accessed and digested by frontline staff.
  2. Captured the lessons learned. Harvest these from anyone involved in the project while they’re fresh and keep them in an obvious location on your shared drive. These will be gold dust for next time around.
  3. Measured the actual benefits. In my experience, through no fault of those involved, there is a big difference between how you intend to use the results of a survey how you actually do. One of the most valuable benefits of a recent survey was found to be an improvement to response rates when fundraisers request face-to-face meetings with alumni. A colleague found that she had a more positive response to her introduction emails that mentioned an individual’s survey feedback – and that didn’t even feature as a benefit in our original business case. Equally, other teams had adopted some of the high level results as key performance indicators for their programmes which was not anticipated at the outset. It’s important to review all the ways colleagues are using the survey insight before making any decisions about running (or not running) the survey in future.

One thought on “How to win at surveying your alumni

  1. Simon Buttenshaw says:

    Thanks Holly. I love your last point – if a fundraiser mentions the survey to a respondent it is helpful in setting up a face to face meeting. We shouldn’t be at all surprised by that. After all, if the time spent at university/college etc played a major part in the respondents life, then the time they took to answer the questions may itself have been a deep and intense experience. Our challenge is to find a way of acknowledging that in our feedback – with every respondent, not just those who we are seeking major gifts from. If we do that, we will have deepened the relationship with our alumni.

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