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.