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.