Friday, April 12, 2013

A Case for Measuring Alumni Engagement

I’m very pleased to open my blog to other innovative thinkers in the advancement field, in this case, Ron Cohen, Vice President for University Relations at Susquehanna University. I applaud Ron’s efforts to define and measure meaningful alumni engagement. Here is his case:

There is dialogue escalating among higher education alumni relations’ professionals about the best ways to measure their effectiveness.  Some call into question whether alumni activity can be measured effectively at all.  It’s easy to default to a commonly held viewpoint that offices of alumni relations or alumni affairs or – more recently – alumni engagement exist mainly to make alumni “feel good” about alma mater.  While that is certainly a desired effect, it should not be a driver of activity.

Work that targets alumni has to be measured.  And it should be measured in ways that connect to institutional goals.  That means it doesn’t matter how many alumni return to campus for Homecoming.  Or how many attend their 25th reunion.  Or how many show up at a regional chapter event.  It only matters if those numbers are contributing to the advancement of the institution in some tangible way.

The good news is that a model for measuring the effectiveness of alumni activities  is easily accessible:   it lives in the Development Office.  Fund-raisers have been executing goal-based action plans for decades, and much of their rubric can be applied to the Alumni Office.

Below is a matrix illustrating key ingredients of 2 basic requests colleges and universities routinely put before alumni:  1) make your annual gift, and 2) attend Homecoming:

1–Build the case
Construct rationale based on how gift dollars will have impact on institution’s priorities and make a difference for students, faculty, programs, etc. to support request for contributions
Construct rationale based on how people will have fun if they attend
2 –Set the goal
Develop goal(s) to meet institutional budget elements.   Use historical activity to inform and determine ask strategies and tactics
Develop based on numbers that feel right to try to achieve
3 –Prepare communications
Articulate case that differentiates across segments:  large vs. small donors, fund purpose(s), age, vehicle (phone-mail-visit), other identified segments
Articulate a fairly homogeneous message set, to be delivered through multiple vehicles
4 –ASK
Various communication platforms that convey urgency, entail multiple appeals or attempts with specific requests for gifts, via different transaction types/options
Various communication platforms that generally invite attendance and offer registration opportunity
5–Receive/ Record
As gift activity populates – positive and negative – track and record responses, noting how they match up to appeals and attempts.  Use historic activity to inform future approaches
Keep track of who attends.  Record in database.
6 –Acknowledge/ Recognize
Send thank-you messages; populate members of gift clubs; publish donor lists; invite to events; send special communications
Send messages to volunteers.  Photos appear in various media (print, electronic, social)

The annual fund path is guided by a goal of improving the institution.  Requests – the “ask” – are determined by the potential level of contribution:  the greater the return, the more personal the appeal/approach must be. 

By comparison, the Homecoming path/rationale is less easily discerned.  In most cases, invitation messaging isn’t compelling nor does it help alumni know why their attendance matters.  There is a looseness here that raises the question:  is attendance even worth tracking?

Instead, though, what if a different (new) path led to Homecoming and looked more like this:

1 – Build the case
Construct rationale based on how people can have fun if they attend
Construct rationale based on how attendees will become better prepared to advance the institution effectively as a result of their exposure to campus, students, faculty, etc.
2 – Set the goal
Develop based on numbers that feel right to try to achieve
Develop based on outbound goals/behaviors alumni will be asked to consider
***   # of advocacy contacts
***   # of new student referrals
***   # of mentoring contacts initiated
3 – Prepare communications
Articulate a fairly homogenous message set, delivered through multiple vehicles
Articulate different messages that speak to the outbound goals noted above.
4 - ASK
Various communication platforms that generally invite registration
Various communication platforms that match up with goals (including general event registration).  Create capacity for non-attendees to participate in advancing goals.
5 – Receive/ Record
Keep track of who attends.  Record in database.
Keep track of who attends, who “takes assignments”, who executes post-event.
6 – Acknowledge/ Recognize
Send messages to volunteers.  Photos appear in various media (print, electronic, social)
Send thank-you messages to all attendees, track and acknowledge post-behavior activity, create list and other recognition vehicles

The “new” path could include as part of its rationale something like:  “We need 1,000 Homecoming attendees to deliver an ALMA MATER viewbook to their local high school guidance office”.   Now there is something worth counting.  And:  we may have alumni who cannot attend but who are motivated by the rationale and want to participate in the viewbook delivery program.  That’s a Win/Win (engaged alum/ advancing ALMA MATER).

Alumni engagement will improve if alumni see measurable goals that align with institutional value.  Clear targets attract attention and resonate because our alumni are inclined to want to contribute to the betterment of their college/university.  So let’s give them the opportunity.  And then let’s tell them how they’re doing.  And finally, let’s be sure to thank them as they deliver.

Can you offer other ways that alumni can help advance alma mater’s mission?

Please write me at if you have an idea for a guest blog post.  I’m looking for examples of innovation in service to mission advancement.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Defining Alumni Engagement

A colleague was kind enough to write yesterday and ask if I had a definition of “alumni engagement” that could be shared with a campus task force looking into that issue.  Here’s what I offered:

Alumni Engagement -- the totality of means by which a school, college or university seeks to engage strategically the time and talents of its most conscientious and capable alumni for the purposes of:

•Fostering a greater sense of shared purposes around the mission, vision and direction of the institution;
•Extending the benefits of community (to be welcomed into, valued by, and made to feel an integral part of it) beyond those boundaries of campus to all those who share, support and live out the ideals of institution;
•Reviewing and refining institutional priorities to ensure core values remain intact as adjustments are made to preserve and enhance institutional relevance; and
•Creating "a more perfect institution," one that seeks to make an ever greater and more lasting impact on the lives of those it educates and on the society is serves in the most creative, foresighted, and cost-effective manner possible.

Please note some critical word choices:  Schools, colleges and universities should be more assiduous in seeking out and engaging their most conscientious alumni, those who exemplify their highest ideals. Developing shared purposes among critical constituents creates a “we the people” impetus and dynamism – one of the greatest social constructs and forces for good in human history. Striving to create a true sense of community and making exemplary alumni feel welcomed, valued and integral to it is of greater importance than ever before given the steady decline in alumni support over the past 18 years.  Reestablishing the relevance of an institution’s core values from one generation to the next is the key to lasting impact. And, the pursuit of more perfect unions is what has driven American ideals and American philanthropy from our very beginnings. And, finally, we will not win back alumni or broaden substantially our bases of support if we insist all of this is about more – more people, more programs, more buildings, more endowment and, therefore, more money.  We must seek to perfect more cost-effective models of delivering quality to those we serve.

P.S.  My monograph, “Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide,” is available on the Academic Impressions we

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide

My monograph, "Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide," is now available on the Academic Impressions website.  For readers of my blog and attendees of my seminars and classes, this is what you have asked and encouraged me to do so many times -- to develop a comprehensive guide on my philosophy of advancement that includes various cases studies and specific illustrations of how to implement key concepts.  I have written the monograph for presidents since the ultimate responsibility for advancement falls on their shoulders, and because they are often met, upon assuming the office, with myths, stereotypes or reductive notions about the field.  This monograph, then, seeks to give them a sensible and satisfying unifying theory of advancement and to demonstrate how sustainable communities of support can be built in systematic fashion through the employment of sophisticated, research-based strategies. The work incorporates and builds upon the ideas and innovations I have shared with you in recent years.  I am very grateful for your support and dedicate this work to you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reciprocity in Alumni Relations

Reciprocity is defined as “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” It is all to often missing from the alumni relations programs of many schools, colleges and universities.

If incredulity is your first response to that statement, I can understand.  But bear with me for a minute.  You would be right to point out that most institutions afford their alumni a host of services from career counseling to events and activities tailored to their specific interests.  Yet, as we delve into the reasons why alumni support declined over 20 consecutive years, we hear an increasingly common plaint: “The only thing my alma mater wants from me is money.”  That sentiment is making it increasingly difficult for institutions to establish and maintain contact with a majority of its alumni.   Only a tiny fraction of e-mails from alma mater are opened.  Telephone calls, direct mail, invitations and other means don’t fare much better.  Large segments of alumni believe them to be one in the same – direct or indirect means of fundraising.  They don’t see reciprocity in the offerings of alma mater as much as a quid pro quo - “a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.” And what’s expected, they say, is money and it is expected immediately.

While it is unwise and insensitive of institutions to reduce their alumni to ambulatory ATMs, , especially those still paying off student debt, it would unrealistic and selfish of alumni to expect alma mater to provide goods and services over time without asking for their support in return.  The relationship can’t always be about money, nor can be never be about money.  The question, then, is the how to strike a reciprocal balance.

Think of it this way:  If you are asking your alumni to pledge their support to you, what are you pledging them in return?   Chapman University (a client of Langley Innovations) has created and promulgated a compact to its alumni in which it pledges to:

Maintain a lifelong interest in, and affirmation of the personal, professional and spiritual milestones of its alumni;

Afford alumni a formal, valued voice in all critical institutional matters; 

Engage the alumni in all key facets of University life including signature events and activities;

Offer the means for alumni to discover one another, either to re-form bonds or create new alliances;

Provide information, programs and services that correspond with the strongest alumni interests and needs;

Seek the individual and collective expertise of alumni to enhance the University’s impact, reach and stature; and

Welcome them back, through various avenues, and celebrate their return home.  

Chapman’s office of Alumni Relations has built its annual operating plan around ensuring that those pledges are fulfilled. Each pledge has multiple actions, responsible persons, and deadlines associated with it.  It is a genuine effort to establish a more reciprocal relationship with its alumni.  And everyone committed to and associated with the compact at Chapman knows it will take years before that goal is achieved.  But, it serves as a good example of what can and should be done, a very promising step in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Promised Land

The title Jay Parini chose for his study of the “thirteen books that changed America“ could not have been more apt.  He called it “The Promised Land,” after a title of one of the books selected and because it was a powerful theme that ran through the other twelve.  The story of America – past, present, future – is the search for promised lands of all manner and imagination.  The most successful philanthropy-seeking organizations make themselves integral to that narrative.

I liken the role of CEOs of philanthropy-seeking organizations to the masters of wagon trains, those that led waves upon waves of settlers in “prairie schooners”, across the country, usually from Independence, Missouri, to various parts west.   The wagon master could not marshal the resources necessary if he could not define the destination and how long it would take to get there.  It could not be a dream or a hope or a catchy slogan or an enumeration of ideals; it had to be an actual place that could be reached within a reasonable time.  And it had to be a place worth the sacrifice required.  If wagon masters promised too little, the settlers would not be motivated to endure the hardships ahead.  If they promised too much, they would ultimately disappoint if not embitter those entrusted to their care.

As wagon trains jostled west, wagon masters learned the ways to keep settlers’ morale high was to maintain steady progress toward the promised land.  If wagon masters became indecisive or captive of the councils of camp elders, or content to settle down too soon, wagons would break away from their trains and join others.  If we substitute purpose and progress for process, or set our sights too low, we lose our supporters.

The path to the promised land was not a high speed highway but a sinuous, often tenuous and sometimes treacherous trail whose markings could be washed away by prodigious floods or obliterated by blinding blizzards.  The way could be threatened or slowed by no end of natural disasters or by hostile or disaffected tribes. Wagon masters, for all their organizational and political skills, learned to rely on scouts, usually mountain men, who knew the terrain “like the backs of their hands.”  Scouts rode well ahead of the wagon train, making sure the trail was intact and in a condition to accommodate the weight of all that would follow.  They also sought out fresh water, hunted game, identified edible roots and berries, and negotiated passage with various tribes.  

I liken the role of advancement leader to that of scouts.  They must ride ahead of the enterprise and help it see how the landscape is changing.  They must let their wagon masters know when the train needs to change course to avoid insurmountable rockslides or obstinate mud, or when there is an opportunity to secure more plentiful supplies of food and water.  That often entails diverting institutional imperatives away from the short run so that progress can be sustained for over a long journey. They cannot do their job by staying encamped or being content to ride alongside the settlers. They cannot assume that the resources that were available to previous wagon trains will be theirs for the mere asking or taking.  They must spend much more time powwowing with those that will make the passage ahead possible than hobnobbing around the campfires of the encircled wagons.

The best of scouts never went it alone; they knew their knowledge, no matter how deep, must be supplemented by the even deeper and more specialized knowledge of indigenous tribes along the trail.  They recruited Native Americans to help them at crucial stages of the journey to perform critical functions.  The advancement scout must think of the volunteer in the same way.

If we in the advancement field are to help our organizations move steadily toward a promised land, we need to be less concerned with building out our organizations and more with augmenting them with select specialized volunteer talent.  We cannot recruit the best volunteer talent if we don’t realize how crucial they are at certain points in our journey and if we are not willing to allow them to perform critical tasks on our behalf.  We must scout first for talent, then just money.  We can no longer afford to look only for the conspicuously monied and try to humor them by insisting that we’re really interested in their talent. We must look harder and longer for inconspicuous skill and substance, irrespective of money.  We must believe, and treat them as if they are essential to our enterprise.

The more time we spend scouting out skills and incorporating substance into our enterprise, the more we can ensure it will make steady progress toward the promised land.  And there is no better case for that enterprise than having defined an audacious but attainable promised land, having a clear but adaptive plan for getting there, demonstrating initial progress toward it, and showing where additional investment will quicken its pace and ensure the probability of its success.

The move west, contrary to myth, was not a function of rugged individualism but of enlightened collaboration.  Success was born of a practical realization of the need for interdependence and reciprocity, an often uneven and unruly phenomenon in its day-to-day manifestation but absolutely essential to reaching the promised land.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Getting Out of the Entertainment Business

In my work with various institutions – educational and nonprofit – I often encounter impressive professionals putting forward impressive efforts in the name of wishful thinking.  Their intentions are the right ones – to find interesting ways of attracting more people to their cause and thereby build stronger communities of common interests.  But they’re overly reliant on big events and too concerned about making them entertaining.  

To entertain, the dictionary says, is “to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.” That runs counter to what a cause must project to strengthen its philanthropic value proposition: gravitas.  And that is defined as “substantive, weightiness” or “a serious and dignified demeanor” all of which covey seriousness of purpose.  So why do we continue to believe that we can attract and sustain the interests of substantive philanthropists, and induce them to make considerable investments in our cause by expending significant sums and loads of labor on essentially amusing and diverting events?

Yes, I understand that we read in society news about an endless array of tony events attended by very wealthy people in very fancy clothes but that should tell us:

1. Our society is not afflicted by a shortage of entertainment options;
2. The wealthy don’t suffer from a shortage of invitations to tony events;
3. The bar for lavishness has been set very high, therefore,
4. We’re not likely increase our market share of philanthropic support by out-entertaining the completion or out-entertaining the everyday entertainment options available to most people.

Even if we could come close to competing or catch some wealthy folks otherwise engaged on some evening when their were only four galas rather than the usual twelve to choose from, we need to remember that being wealthy and being philanthropic are not one in the same; therefore:

1. We may be spending a lot to attract the wrong people and repel the right ones;
2. We may be sending the signal that we’re far better off than we are thereby undercutting our larger case for support.

I could say, “Entertaining events simply are not worth the time and money” but it would be more helpful to say, “The same amount of time and money applied to weightier efforts will yield a far greater philanthropic return in the short and long run.”

So, back to the original proposition, how do we attract the right people to worthy causes?  By asking ourselves what might cause someone with a social conscience and a philanthropic heart to look at our invitation and conclude, “Of all the requests and invitations that have crossed my desk in recent months, this seems particularly important because:

1. It might offer some fresh insight into an important issue,” or
2. “It offers a way to advance my beliefs or value system,” or
3. “It has the potential of making a difference where a difference really needs to be made,” or
4. “It would be wrong me to not be there.”

Our plans should seek reverse engineer those conclusions.  It’s not as if we have to rule out the possibility of doing something joyous.  Seriousness of purpose doesn’t require us to be somber.  Defining the difference your institution can make and delivering on that promise will bring endless joy to your days and to those who help advance your cause.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Engaging By Means Other Than Fundraising

A recent issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek tells the story of Jason Kapalka, a 1994 graduate of the University of Alberta, who has gave his alma mater a $100,000 for endowment.

“As Kapalka’s career started to take off,” the article says, “the university cultivated a relationship with him—inviting him back to campus, honoring him with a special award, and putting him in touch with one of his former professors.

“They didn’t ask me for anything,” Kapalka is quoted as saying. “It was me who wanted to give to them. Although being in touch with them again definitely made it easier.”

Ah, there’s so much in those few sentences.   First of all note, that it says “the university” engaged Kapalka, not the advancement or development office.  Second, he was invited back to campus and recognized for his achievements, presumably by the president.  Third, the university facilitated his reconnection to a favorite professor.  Therein lies a formula for the successful engagement of alumni.

1. Re-engage in a non-fundraising context: All too often we consign alumni to “prospect” status and have the first institutional contact, often after years of no communication or interaction, made by the advancement office.  What does this say to the alumnus?  “Your alma mater has a conditional interest in you.”   Fundraisers should contact only engaged alumni; a fundraising call, no matter how adroit the fundraiser, is not a good first point of engagement strategy.

2. Recognize achievement: There are so many untapped and under-employed means by which alumni can and should be recognized.  What does it say about an institution if it recognizes only the financially successful? What about alumni who have performed admirably in the realms of public or community service? What about alumni who have achieved literary, artistic, intellectual, or academic distinction? No, an institution cannot and should not conduct ceremonies for each but it can recognize them by publishing their achievements in “class notes” or “service notes.”  It can feature the more notable accomplishments in its publications and on its websites. It can determine which achievements warrant congratulations from the president.  It can call them to the attention of faculty members and ask that they write personal congratulations to former students.  Many alumni impute a parental significance to their alma maters; what they value most, therefore, is the occasional nod of approval from those they most respect, those who they see as keepers of institutional values.

3. Reconnect through substantive means: Institutions that sustain the highest level of alumni support offer multiple means of substantive engagement, including the opportunity to access the faculty through lectures, webinars, real and virtual book clubs, alumni college days, and education-vacation opportunities.  They do not try to park them off campus in an alumni house to wax nostalgic over beer kegs; they expect their alumni office to develop the means by which graduates can be kept current on institutional activities– and help keep their alma mater current in their areas of expertise and spheres of influence. Great institutions develop the mastery of helping students learn and learning from their most accomplished alumni.

When these things are done well, alumni like Jason Kapalka say, “They didn’t ask me for anything.  It was me who wanted to give.”  But I have a sneaking suspicion his engagement was masterminded by someone in advancement.  I congratulate him or her on the very deft and patient way it was done.   We all stand to learn from this success.