Why Most College and University Alumni Programs Fail
Higher Education Alumni programs will often fail if they don't start by talking to the very community they serve, and ask: “How can we serve you?”
Alumni Relations in higher education is nothing new: in 1890 a group of Yale alumni gathered in a Manhattan apartment to discuss a way “to open an opportunity for contributions from alumni to the funds of the University.” It was alumni volunteers, not institutional staff, that took the historic step of creating the first university annual fund.
Since that time, many college or university Alumni programs have been able to rest simply on the knowledge that each year a new wave of graduates will join their site as alumni. But in a bid to improve the engagement and outcomes of their communities, best in class (sorry) University Alumni Programs are now emulating those of the Corporate Alumni World.
Higher-Ed Alumni Programs Are Often Generic
College Alumni Programs that have an 'off the shelf' generic website – branded with a logo, and offering a CRM integration but little more – often wonder why engagement is low, donations have plateaued and the value of their program doesn’t resonate across their community.
Let's shed some light on this problem.
College or University Alumni managers often have unrealistic expectations thrust upon them, asked to perform dual tasks of Alumni Relations and Fundraising. To be fair, Alumni Relations was born out of a need to fundraise – but that doesn’t mean the two goals work symbiotically without strategic planning!
We have spoken to almost all of the 'top tier' colleges in the US and UK who reached out to ask how our customers get such high engagement numbers, how we are enabling Alumni to better amplify our customers social messaging and, almost always, requesting to attend one of our strategy and engagement design-thinking workshops.
University Alumni Administrators have been looking for more: more access to insights and information to drive better programming, more complex tools to deliver better end-user experiences and more functionality designed to drive actual engagement and end-user value.
The challenges of an Alumni program are the same across both Corporate and College Alumni. You cannot start with the outcome. For example, one of the core functions of a Corporate Alumni Program is recruiting. Our platform accelerates a very strong ROI from hiring former employees (boomerang hires) or using this network of former employees to find a referral. However, the road to those ROIs is never immediate or effortless. Alumni networks do not welcome visitors to the site with “Hey, wanna come back?” Instead, they open with “Hi, how are you? How can we help?” … and recruiting then becomes an effortless outcome. College alumni programs need a similar approach: if you want an outcome the conversation has to start with a human element of offer value before asking them for cash 😊
Consider the needs and values your Alumni users are looking for in a program; only by addressing and delivering on these needs does an organization have the right to ask for something in return. (Or they have the right, but they cannot always expect results!)
College Alumni Programs: The Legacy Approach
The legacy Alumni Program has typically followed an outdated thought process: essentially, have a website where members can use an online address book to find other Alumni. Perhaps post some news, some events, and maybe have a couple of micro communities for discussions. These programs started before the meteoric rise of LinkedIn.
Here’s the thing. I don’t need your Alumni website to find Alumni of my alma mater also working at Salesforce in New York, or which ones are now a VP, or which ones have started a startup that raised money recently. I don’t need to come to my alma mater Alumni site to find out that another notable Alumni just got a board seat or registered a trademark. But there are other things I do need as an alum, of course.
This model of Alumni Engagement for Colleges goes back 120+ years and aside from migrating from an annual hard copy book with names and contact emails being sent in the mail, it is essentially the very same program, with the very same core values and the very same expectations.
The fundamental failure of Alumni programs (both Corporate and in Higher Ed) is they rarely started by asking “how can we serve our Alumni?” Worse still, they rarely engage with and interview their outliers – those people that never come, never log in, never open an email (and never donate). Only by exploring and serving the outliers can a true Alumni Engagement strategy be understood and executed upon.
Five Failures of a College Alumni Program
Through our learnings, we identified a number of core failures across college alumni programs can be broken into the following distinct categories:
1. Lack of context, lack of recognition and lack of value: For many organizations, their Alumni website is basically a member directory plus news, events, a financial reference to try and drive donations, and perhaps the odd group of micro-communities to allow for “discussion forums”. Where they fail is that in an effort to serve everyone, they actually serve no one. What we mean is that the experience should be wildly different based on who you are, where you are in your career cycle and the reason you chose to log in. A recent graduate could benefit from learning, webinars, events, job opportunities, calls to action to do some work with their alma mater; certainly not straight requests for money. A recent graduate should be pushed to a campaign around the habit of donating vs the act of donating. Donating is about training and creating repetition and a habit and getting in the habit is more important than the amount.
2. Little or No Value Program: Is the mission of your Alumni program to serve your Alumni? Is there a recognition that if you serve the Alumni well, they in-turn will serve the college well? If not, why not?
3. Money, Money, Money: Fundraising shouldn’t take precedence over Alumni Engagement. We understand that Alumni Leaders are often given quota expectations and held to them, accountable for achieving certain milestones such as percentage of Alumni gifting, or total dollars raised. But when fundraising quota and accountability is the main driver of the Alumni Program, it leaves Alumni leaders thinking about nothing else. The message that sends is ‘if you give money, we will listen and engage otherwise you are not part of the narrative’. Essentially relegating non-donors to second class users.
4. Pressure on Graduates who believe that the only “correct” way to serve their Alma Mater is by donating. We know this is critical – but many Alumni who may not have the financial capacity (yet) to donate can be doing other tasks that have as much value as a cash donation. Many programs are not making it easy for Alumni to engage in other ways aside from money.
5. Legacy Technology: Donations are important but come from a strongly engaged and well-executed program. Without understanding what engagement drives fundraising, what activity or article or social or event leads to higher donation conversion, you are left with limited insight. In this situation, whilst you can be confident that “Fundraising from Alumni starts with engaging Alumni in a meaningful way” you are unable to drill down into “meaningful” insights. No A/B test email campaigns or landing pages or conversion funnels which means you have absolutely no idea or insight into what works and what could work – and no idea if your program is operating anywhere near its capacity.
Those best in class college Alumni Programs are therefore now learning from and moving to models reflecting that of the Corporate Alumni World by understanding that to get, you have to give. That you cannot just ask for money and expect those people to be willing, active and enthused members in a community - and to do so you need modern, innovative and engagement-driven technology.
To learn more about engaging your community, we suggest exploring this selection of our blog.