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by Gwen Doyle, Daniel Fusch, and Erin Swietlik (Academic Impressions)
Academic Impressions recently conducted a survey of nearly one hundred alumni relations professionals. We asked about what measures of alumni engagement they had in place -- and the extent to which these measures inform program improvements, new projects, and strategic planning for alumni outreach.
Measuring "return on investment" on alumni outreach efforts can be a touchy subject -- and a particularly difficult activity to attempt. At AI, we wanted to track the shift toward more data-informed decision making in alumni relations, and learn more about how alumni relations professionals across the industry are addressing this challenge.
Here is what we learned.
Are Your Peers Assessing the Return on Alumni Relations Efforts?
According to the poll:
- 68% of alumni relations officers use some quantitative and qualitative measurements.
- 22% currently have no defined measurements.
- 10% use either quantitative measures or qualitative measures, but not both.
Almost all of the 22% who currently have no defined measurements are being asked to start assessing alumni relations -- they just aren't certain how to begin.
What Obstacles Do Your Peers Face?
When asked what obstacles they face in taking a more metrics-driven approach to alumni relations, respondents to our poll noted:
- Data reliability -- often the data collected in the past is inaccurate, incomplete, or cannot be correlated with other data, with the result that an office may have a lot of data points but may not be able to turn that data into useful information.
- Data availability -- in decentralized or highly siloed environments, correlating alumni relations and development data can be an obstacle. Moreover, regional clubs may not report information accurately.
- The difficulty of capturing, mining, and making sense of qualitative measures. As many respondents noted, often the story of an alum's experience can tell you more about the effectiveness of an event than quantitative measures such as attendance or dollars raised.
- Lack of certainty over which data to capture, beyond attendance at alumni events or the number of association members.
- Lack of staff trained to mine and analyze the data -- this is particularly a problem for small shops.
One professional remarked, "We also have to strike the balance between spending more time on collecting data and assessing yourself than actually doing the required/necessary work. This is not to say that it isn't important and necessary, but when you have a small shop that is being pulled in multiple directions, time is precious and you must maximize that time to the fullest."
What Do Your Peers Wish They Knew?
We asked alumni relations professionals to imagine that they were querying a panel of experts on AR assessment. What are the most pressing questions they would bring to such a panel? What information would they want to have after that conversation?
The most frequent questions were:
- What are effective qualitative measures?
- What quantitative measures actually define engagement (beyond event attendance, volunteering, reading emails)?
- What measures can tell me which alumni events are productive?
- How do I measure engagement over time?
- How reliable is engagement data tracking when correlating alumni relations to giving-related outcomes?
Some of the respondents had been assessing alumni relations efforts for some time, to one degree or another, but only a few had well-defined measures.
"The findings from this poll paint a picture of the state of alumni relations. The big takeaway is that if you are struggling with how to measure alumni engagement, you are not alone. If you are being charged with measuring ROI on alumni relations, you're not alone."
Erin Swietlik, Academic Impressions
"Metrics are going to become increasingly important in AR decision making. The ability to put numbers on a traditionally unmeasurable activity is what’s going to professionalize this field. That is what has the potential to make alumni relations professionals more than just 'friendraisers.'” Gwen Doyle, Academic Impressions
The 2 Things Alumni Relations Professionals Should Consider
Here are two ways to begin addressing the challenges noted in this report.
Using surveys can bolster the availability of accurate alumni data. While many institutions do use post-event surveys, make sure that you:
- Compile this data in a central location
- Add relevant demographic information to your database
- Follow up with anyone who was dissatisfied
In addition, some institutions have had success with alumni-wide surveys, using questions targeted at understanding their general attitudes towards the institution.
Leveraging your data to make the case for more resources.
If you or your team still feel an aversion towards placing metrics around your relationship-based work, try shifting your focus to leveraging data to prove your effectiveness, make the case for increased resources, or to spend fewer resources on underperforming events.