The rest was silence

Inept alumni communications derail the desire to give, says Tim Birkhead

March 17, 2011

An eminent colleague recently told me how, after three decades of utter silence, he had finally heard from his alma mater. It was an email headed "Birthday wishes from the Alumni Association".

He opened it.

"Dear Professor X" - yes, they did have his correct name. "As it's your birthday, we would like this opportunity to say...". What? The message field was empty. We would like this opportunity to say - absolutely nothing. To add insult to injury, my colleague's computer added its own greeting, suggesting the message was a scam.

Perhaps it was, although they'd identified his name and date of birth correctly. In a way, it would have been better if it had been a scam. As it was, it was simply a display of ineptitude - a display, he said, that would put him off contributing anything to their alumni fund, should he ever be asked.

Ineptitude. It is what we are trying to displace from our undergraduates' heads and replace with life-enhancing skills, knowledge and, dare I say it, wonder. My colleague told me that if asked in the right way, he would have been a sucker for donating, especially as he really valued his undergraduate experience, with its freedom from box-ticking, its focus on the joy of learning and its dispelling of ineptitude.

His university's inability to identify him as a successful academic, with a heart and bank balance of gold, made him wonder whether it was just him. Was he the isolated glitch? Perhaps everyone else from his cohort had been receiving meaningful birthday messages each year since they graduated, or at least since the alumni association had realised that this might be a way to get donations.

Receiving an inept birthday greeting once in 30 years is about as gratifying as the interest paid into your current bank account if you are in credit.

I've never been approached by my alma mater for a donation, so my colleague's story made me wonder what I would do if asked. On reflection I probably would send a cheque, providing I could be sure that my donation was going to do something worthwhile.

It is a bit like giving (or not giving) to charity: it's a huge disincentive if you think that most of what you give goes on administration. University alumni offices are hardly trivial organisations and one presumes that they have to earn their salaries.

I was pretty useless at school until, by some fluke at the age of about 16, I won a modest prize. It had an enormously positive effect on my outlook - which itself may have been fortuitous, because it coincided with the end of corporal punishment. Up until that point, regular beatings were an integral part of my early education.

Sadly, I have no idea who donated the prize. But such was its positive effect that, years later, I made an unsolicited donation to my old school, offering a (modest, and now probably almost worthless) prize in biology. I was specific: I did not want it to go to some clever dick for whom it might simply be one of a cluster of prizes. Instead, I requested that it be awarded to the pupil in the lowest stream who had done best.

After a struggle with the bursar, who argued that it was highly irregular to give a prize to some turnip-head (his words not mine - no, sorry, mine not his), he eventually acquiesced and in due course, I received a gratifying and grateful letter from the recipient.

Most givers probably want their donation to be targeted. That probably doesn't go down well with alumni offices who, one presumes, want cash, and lots of it, preferably with no strings attached. There's an irritating irony here, for when they (occasionally) disperse their alumni funds, there seem to be far too many strings attached.

That's exactly what occurred with my colleague. In a curious coincidence, just before the empty birthday greeting, his university had asked him to apply for alumni funds to "enhance the current undergraduate experience".

As it happened, my colleague had been making exactly this kind of application - albeit unsolicited - to the alumni office for over two decades, with absolutely zero success. Thinking that the most recent call was his best chance, he applied, but since it required grappling with miles of the university's usual red tape, it took the best part of half a day.

His case was rock solid, he felt: his idea was to fill a gaping hole in the undergraduate experience by enabling outstanding individuals to attend an academic conference. What better way (if done properly) to enhance their learning experience than to introduce them to an important aspect of academic research? However, he was rebuffed again.

Then the next day, he told me, something miraculous occurred. His academic fairy godmother at another university phoned to remind him of a long-forgotten scheme that - with no red tape - would provide the funds needed to support his undergraduates.

That's what fairy godmothers are for, and I suggest you get one for those days when the system lets you down.

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