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Alumni Relations ROI: An Approach

Marquette University has piloted (and refined) an innovative metrics tool for measuring the impact of alumni engagement efforts. Numerical scores are assigned to specific activities that are indicative of alumni engagement and participation, and the scoring is used to measure the return on investment for alumni relations efforts in quantitative terms and to inform allocation of future resources.

To learn about the basics of the approach and how these metrics have informed decision making at Marquette, we interviewed Andrea Petrie, director of development for Marquette's College of Nursing, and Taylor Schult, an associate engagement officer who serves on Marquette's Affinity-Based Giving team.

 

 

Schult notes that what is especially empowering about Marquette's point-scoring system of alumni relations metrics is that once you have numerical scores, you can set specific goals for improving those scores for specific groups of alumni. And those goals can then be measured quantitatively.

BY WAY OF EXAMPLE: MARQUETTE UNIVERSITY'S METRICS

Marquette University uses a 16-point model to assess alumni engagement and giving.

For each alum, up to 8 points are assigned to metrics that assess engagement:

  • The institution has a valid email address on file: 1 point
  • The alum has signed up for the online alumni community: 1 point
  • The institution has employment/business information on file: 1 point
  • The alum has attended an event in the past year: 1 point
  • The alum is a season ticket holder for intercollegiate athletics: 1 point
  • The alum has volunteered in the past year: 1 point
  • The alum has spoken at an event or in the classroom in the past year: 1 point

8 points are assigned to metrics that assess giving:

  • The alum has made a gift this past year: 4 points
  • The gift was higher than the previous gift: 1 point
  • The alum has made 2 consecutive gifts: 3 points

The Marquette point system (above) is just one example of how an alumni relations and development office might devise metrics for measuring the ROI for alumni relations efforts. The relative weight given to various alumni activities needs to be driven by your office's goals. "And you have to look at your alumni base," Schult cautions. "One might see very different point systems for different institutions. A commuter school, for example, would need entirely different criteria for assessing how alumni are engaged."

What Questions Should Alumni Relations Officers Be Asking?

Start by asking, "What can you measure?" It's possible to create a more complex model -- for example, maybe there's a point assigned if an alum is married to another alum, or if the alum has a child who attended the institution. But some of the metrics you might identify might (a) not be as easy to measure, and (b) may not be as clear a measure or predictor of engagement. Think through the criteria: what is actually trackable for you, given your staff and your alumni community?

Andrea Petrie, Marquette U

That said, while emphasizing that you need to keep the model feasible (and therefore usable) for your offie, Petrie also notes that the more specific you can make the model, the better the chance of having more accurate engagement scores that will be more useful in informing specific decisions. Perhaps if your alumni community is large and geographically diverse, you could develop numerical scores for regional versus on-campus events. Or if your institution has two distinct but well-known athletics teams, you might distinguish between them when assigning points for alumni involvement in intercollegiate athletics.

The key is that scores be both measurable and accurately reflective of actual engagement.

Using These Metrics to Drive Resource Allocation

ROI isn't just about documenting effectiveness; it's about pinpointing where to devote future efforts:

  • These data can inform more focused work on specific constituencies. (Perhaps you discover that you have a lot of alumni in Chicago, but they are under-engaged.)
  • You can lower costs, prioritizing your outreach based on the engagement score. For example, rather than pay the cost of sending direct mail to every alum in Milwaukee, perhaps you prioritize and leave out alumni with a score of 0 or 1. Or, perhaps the goal of a particular mailing is to reach unengageds, in which case you send only to those with a score of 0 or 1.
  • You can also target your research efforts more specifically. For example, rather than just ask your most engaged alumni what your institution can do for them, you might target 0 and 1 with invitations to attend a focus group, so that you can hear what services or communications are valuable to those alumni who currently are not engaging with you. 

Perhaps most compellingly, this type of scoring allows your office to move beyond just tracking total engagement and giving scores by event.

"It's not always a matter of how many people attend an event," Petrie advises, "or how many dollars are raised from that group -- it may be the same people coming to every event. Dig deeper. Find those niche groups who you haven't been able to engage previously. What's really compelling is when you can say that you have engaged X% of your never-engageds, rather than just noting that you saw X% participation from a group that always attends events and always participates."

ARE YOU WILLING TO HAVE TOUGH CONVERSATIONS?

We have taken a hard look at ROI and have tried to discontinue events for which the ROI is very low -- cases in which we are throwing parties just to throw parties, with nothing coming back and the same people attending each year. This means a difficult conversation with volunteers and organizers of these events. It's a very delicate balance when you're communicating why you need to discontinue or change or update an event in order to meet the needs of a different or broader constituency. This prioritization and reallocation of resources based on ROI isn't an overnight process, and it requires some bravery.

Andrea Petrie, Marquette U

Discuss with Your Colleagues

If you were to adapt Marquette University's point-scoring approach for measuring the return on your own alumni engagement efforts:

  • How are you currently assessing the impact of your alumni engagement efforts?
  • When envisioning a new approach to measuring the return on investment, what metrics would be most important to include? Which most truly reflect progress toward your office's goals?
  • How would you weight those measures against each other?
  • What alumni data do you currently have access to? What data do you need to get? Who do you need to collaborate with to attain this information?
  • As resources are finite, it can be difficult to take advantage of new, high-potential opportunities without identifying what activities you are currently investing in that you may need to invest less in. To do more of the right things, you have to stop doing other things. How ready would your office be to have "difficult conversations" about either updating low-performing events or reallocating resources that had previously been invested in those events?
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About the Authors

Daniel Fusch, Director of Publications & Research

Daniel provides strategic direction and content for AI’s electronic publication Higher Ed Impact, including market research and interviews with leading subject matter experts on critical issues. Since the publication’s launch in 2009, Daniel has written more than 200 articles on strategic issues ranging from student recruitment and retention to development and capital planning. If you have a question or a comment about this article, feel free to contact Daniel at daniel@academicimpressions.com.