Alumni relations should not be all about fundraising

It matters that non-donating alumni are missing out on much of the aftercare value they could be receiving, say Andy Shaindlin and David Williams

June 20, 2022
A coin inserted into a piggy bank marked "donations"
Source: iStock

Alumni relations in the UK was once conceived of as a benign aftercare service for all graduates. The value of the reunion meetings and alumni magazines it oversaw was difficult to assess in formal terms, but everyone felt that such efforts were worth undertaking.

However, in recent years, alumni relations has evolved into something very different. First, social media and online search removed much of its raison d’être (who now looks to their alumni office to organise a meetup with old friends?). At the same time, the increasing importance of fundraising income in the UK refocussed alumni resources on a much smaller cohort: those with the capacity to make significant financial contributions.

After decades as alumni relations professionals, we can affirm that mention of our roles at any casual social gathering is always met with the assumption that alumni relations is a euphemism for asking for money. But while there is no doubt that philanthropic support for higher education creates much public good, the ever-increasing focus on fundraising means non-donating alumni are missing out on much of the aftercare value they could be receiving from their alma maters.

In a world of levelling up, where institutions are judged on outcomes such as social mobility, this is going to matter. Over the long term, a failure to invest in a distinct alumni relations offer will harm both the fundraising and the ethical standing of those universities that only evidence interest in their wealthiest graduates.

So how might a refocusing of alumni outreach improve the lot of institutions, as well as that of alumni themselves? Each institution will be different but here are some of the possibilities.

One option is a mission-based approach, authentically aligned to the history, communities, values and aspirations of the institution. Many universities have hundreds of thousands of alumni, so quite significant numbers are likely to be willing to participate in specific initiatives, such as school outreach to bring professional expertise into the classroom, mentoring students and new graduates, and broader societal campaigns.

What this requires most is a strategic refocusing of alumni outreach away from resource-intensive traditional initiatives with unclear outcomes, such as gala events, towards measurable programmes that benefit the chosen mission. Fundraising is one part of the mission – effective alumni outreach will always drive increased philanthropy – but unless alumni relations is tasked and assessed separately, the integrity and authenticity of the mission may be compromised.

How might you assess the long-term impact of an alumni mentoring programme on a student mentee? It’s not as easy as tallying donations, but it is doable, and alumni teams – led by the global industry body, CASE, are making strides in this realm. It draws on infrastructure that already exists in the high-quality databases that development offices use to track philanthropy.

Refocussing of database resources on the impact of the institution on alumni lives would also help assess graduate outcomes, well-being and social mobility. And it could identify and track correlations in alumni behaviour. For example, is someone who attends an alumni event this year more likely to become (or remain) a volunteer next year? What if they attend two or more events? Does mentoring a current student make a graduate more receptive to becoming a donor? All these questions are in the process of being answered, and this use of basic data can help assess the contribution of alumni engagement to developing active, supportive alumni.

But it is perhaps universities’ approach to new alumni that requires the biggest reorientation. The salami-slicing of alumni relations resources towards older, wealthier graduates disproportionately affects those at the start of their journeys. And with Covid already having degraded the residential student experience and the rites of passage of three cohorts (so far) of new graduates, significant numbers are more distanced from their alma mater than previous cohorts have been.

Alumni volunteers can help this new generation secure clarity in their professional journeys just at the time of their greatest need. And if the new graduates know that they are part of a helpful, global network that they can easily access, they will be more strongly tied to their alma maters. By modelling engaged and supportive behaviour, older alumni will be training new graduates, in turn, to “pay it forward” in the future.

The already-privileged are the people least in need of the benefits of having their university involved in their lives. Post-Covid, there is an opportunity to reorient alumni relations to those alumni who need it most.

If universities are assumed to enable all their graduates to get more out of life, what better time than now to make that outcome the intentional result of alumni outreach?

Andy Shaindlin is vice-president and alumni strategy consultant at Grenzebach Glier & Associates. David Williams is a former alumni relations executive at a number of universities in the UK and Ireland.

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