Elephant in the Room

From transactional to authentic relationships with alumni: the business case for alumni relations

Throughout the years I have worked in higher education advancement, I have never felt the need for a strong business case for alumni relations more acutely than now. Universities have been getting a bad rap in the media, along with charities and fundraising practices in general. I’m also hearing more from colleagues that alumni are complaining their universities are only interested in them for their money.

Professor Janet Beer, President of Universities UK said at the Universities UK annual conference earlier this month that universities should connect more to their communities and be open and transparent about senior leadership pay. She said, “Let us today pledge to do more to explain, to engage, to fight back against negative and inaccurate commentary, and to win back the public’s trust.”

Professor Beer said that flaunting the benefits universities bring to society is the way to rectify the situation, along with educating the public. What’s missing seems to be a call to build meaningful relationships with local communities, businesses, students and graduates. Who will listen to our positive narratives if we remain disconnected from our communities?

This attitude is similar to the trends I’m seeing in alumni relations and development in the UK. Our interactions all feel very one sided. Openness and transparency are key to building trust, but so is taking an interest in others.

There is great value in forming a large group of university advocates without linking this to ‘what they can do for us’ in the short term. I believe a lack of confidence in this value is behind a somewhat utilitarian (and mildly manipulative) approach to alumni relations where the focus is only on encouraging contribution, not on good alumni relations.

What happens when there is a weak business case for alumni relations

The prompt for this post was an article by Andrew Shaindlin, a US-Based educational advancement consultant with GG&A, called ‘Integrating Alumni Relations and Development: The Coming Changes’. In the article, Andrew outlines the US trend of alumni associations being integrated with development teams and the increasingly close partnership between alumni relations and fundraising staff.  Andrew attributes the move for greater integration in part to a desire for greater effectiveness or “proof of results from alumni communities”. He said that “recent financial pressures and an increasingly business-like approach to advancement management (and higher education leadership in general) is pressuring alumni directors to quantify, measure, and report their contributions to institutional success. This in turn drives increased interest in metrics that show how alumni engagement affects other endeavours, such as giving.”

In fairness to Andrew, he points out that the increased value of any such integrated arrangement would only be seen in the long term, however the reason he gives is the time required to demonstrate how alumni relations inputs (such as number of events) and trackable alumni behaviours (such as event attendance) correlate with measurable outcomes such as giving.

I am troubled by the idea that to become more strategic and ‘business-like’ alumni relations must prove how its activities correlate with giving and therefore use its resources in aid of this purpose. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The disproportionate focus on ‘giving’ is damaging relationships with alumni

To evaluate alumni relations on an ‘investment’ to ‘measurable alumni contributions’ basis is fundamentally flawed because:

  1. It is demotivating and meaningless to evaluate the success of a function based on its contribution to long-term outcomes. We know from experience that well-informed, connected, satisfied and proud alumni have a greater likelihood of contributing; so why not measure alumni relations based on its ability to help alumni feel well-informed, connected, satisfied and proud? This is measurable in the short and medium term and far more meaningful for a function that mostly communicates, welcomes and supports.
  2. The valuable behaviours of satisfied alumni cannot all be measured by the university and a focus on measurable behaviours de-values those which can’t. If you think of your alumni as brand ambassadors, there is no telling what good they are doing for your university around the dinner (or boardroom) table. Helping alumni to be successful and making sure they are happy with their ongoing university relationship is therefore important and valuable – even if they never volunteer or donate.
  3. Explicitly linking alumni activity to giving incentivises behaviour and communication that work to undermine the authenticity of alumni relations and erodes trust. This giving link will be visible to your alumni; alumni know when they are being marketed at. If you are wanting to make your alumni feel as though they are part of a family that values and supports them, the constant pressure to give sends the message that our care is conditional and transactional. This pushes alumni away who are not ready or able to give right now and the result is increasing opt-outs and distance which is counterproductive and ironically, hampers long-term, sustainable fundraising goals.

The real mission of alumni relations

The need to link alumni relations to giving outcomes is seductive, however I believe it comes from a misconception about the purpose of alumni relations and a reluctance to invest in strategies to measure this purpose.

If you want to know more about the mission of alumni relations, I recommend watching this superb video from the Graduway Global Leaders Summit in 2015 with Howard Wolf (Stanford University) and Christine Fairchild (University of Oxford). Howard posits that the alumni relations function is like ‘corporate brand marketing’ in the private sector, using Apple as an example. I couldn’t agree more. The goal is to help alumni identify positively with the university and cultivate a desire to be part of it – but not promote any specific ‘product’, such as volunteering or making a donation.

If the corporate brand marketing analogy doesn’t sway you, what about how universities have a moral obligation to fulfil their graduates’ need to feel connected and supported by their alma mater (or their ‘nourishing mother’ as Howard reminds us). Christine also describes the university as a place where alumni come to be re-energised, redirected and supported. I think of it slightly differently again – that a university experience is more like a life event, and we are stewards of the memories of these formative years and the special relationship that many alumni have with their university.

In any case, alumni self-stated feelings of connection and pride, and their satisfaction with the support they receive from their alma mater are able to be measured. But instead, many universities disappear down the rabbit hole of measuring inputs, encouraging certain behaviours (without regard to the feelings and attitudes that influence the behaviour) or measuring only the connection between alumni relations and giving outcomes.

What holds us back

The current trend towards greater integration between alumni relations and development certainly plays a part. As long as the head of alumni relations reports to the head of development, the purpose of alumni relations will be to primarily serve the philanthropic agenda. This often means that the only metrics worth tracking are those directly related to giving.

I’m all for alumni relations becoming more ‘business-like’ but to me that means each institution agreeing metrics that relate to the real work of alumni relations. By that I mean measuring the attractiveness of the alumni offer, the quality of the services and benefits provided, the ability for the suite of communications and events to foster feelings of pride and connectedness, and lastly, the volumes of alumni participating.

I look forward to the day when alumni relations acts as the conscience of development, rather than the servant. A ‘maniacal’ focus (as Howard so accurately put it) on return on investment in monetary terms may be the undoing not only of alumni relations, but eventually alumni fundraising. That deserves some contemplation and debate, don’t you think?

To give our future selves the best chance of success, we should reject the prevailing inward looking, self-promoting and transactional stance and instead think about what we can do for those who live near us, work on our campuses and graduate from our programmes. For universities already practicing relationship fundraising this should come as second nature, for those that aren’t, prepare for a bumpy road ahead.


Image credit: Copyright, Guian Bolisay ‘Center of No-One’s attention- Elephant in the Room’ License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode


One thought on “From transactional to authentic relationships with alumni: the business case for alumni relations

  1. timcobb says:

    I first read this blog while I was on holiday Holly and determined to add a comment – then forgot! This is a really important conversation and I share your concerns about the seemingly inexorable drive to justify everything through counting how many beans we get back from our bean investment. There are enlightened leaders who see that there’s so much more than money in their alumni constituencies. My concern is that they’re in a minority.

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