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.