According to a national survey of higher education alumni conducted by the Collaborative Innovation Network for Engagement and Giving and presented to the Annual Giving Directors Consortium (April 2010), only 52 percent of alumni believe their alma mater keeps them closely connected and values its alumni relationships. This lack of engagement represents a significant impediment to engaging alumni philanthropically. We turned to Jim Langley, president of Langley Innovations, for his advice on how institutions need to rethink their strategy for engaging future donors.
A Diagnosis: How Institutions and Alumni Misconnect
“The underlying malady,” Langley remarks, “is a loss of emotional engagement with the institution. Alumni remain appreciative of their degree and of their time at the institution, but feel emotionally detached from the alma mater after graduation.” This disaffection can take different forms for different generations of alumni:
- Young alumni are likely to have graduated with a significant load of student debt and are now facing the challenges of building a career amid a sluggish economic recovery; when asked to give back financially to their alma mater, their response may be that they are already giving back — by paying their tuition bill (via debt) over the next decade
- Alumni later in their careers (ages 35-55) may have attended alumni events and received fundraising literature from their institution, but may feel that their alma mater hasn’t done enough to maintain an emotional connection with them
Langley believes that the root cause of the disaffection is the same across generations: “Too often, we make alumni relations conditional on fundraising. We don’t mean to, but each time an alum hears from their alma mater, who are they hearing from?”
“Alumni perceive that the events they are invited to are orchestrated by the advancement office, and that the institution’s main purpose in re-engaging them is to secure their financial support. In effect, we have made love conditional — and people don’t like conditional love. We value relationships based on mutual respect and mutual benefit. The alumnus wants to re-engage with the institution, not with the advancement office.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations
Effective Alumni Engagement: Learn and Connect
Langley’s own research on alumni participation rates indicates two factors that are shared by most institutions that see high alumni engagement: an extensive peer network among alumni, and programming that offers alumni significant exposure to and connection with faculty. Langley indicates examples such as the Webb Institute, a marine biology school unranked by US News & World Report but far in the lead in its alumni participation rates. Like many institutions that have lower student to faculty ratios, Langley notes that the Webb Institute “has learned the keys to maintaining contact after commencement, engaging alumni in an intimate learning environment.”
“It’s so obvious that we have missed it. What do alumni want from their alma mater? The same things students do. Connection to their peers and access to the faculty. That’s what the whole experience of higher learning is about.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations
A better approach to engaging and cultivating alumni, Langley suggests, is to coordinate efforts through the advancement office but have those efforts be led by stakeholders with whom the alumni already want to engage, such as faculty and students. In the early stages of cultivation, the advancement office needs to take a more facilitative role — for example, by coordinating faculty/alumni interactions via webcasts and other virtual conversations on timely topics.
“In this model, if I am an alum,” Langley remarks, “I get to continue to learn, I can continue to gain valuable information from people I trust, at a standard of excellence that I trust. I get to connect, and I get to learn. If the advancement office is successful in facilitating these connections, it creates the reason to introduce itself.”
“Don’t interpret lack of response as an unwillingness to give. Interpret it as unwillingness to engage solely with the advancement operation.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations
Start by Listening
Langley argues that the best engagement strategy is an “extensive listening exercise that then informs an extensive outreach that is ultimately owned by the president of the institution.” Your office needs to listen to several key things:
- Who your alumni want to connect with, and how
- What they want to learn
It is critical that the inquiry proceed directly from the institution’s president — not from the vice president of advancement. “Otherwise,” Langley cautions, “it sends a signal that we want to listen so that we can ask for money from you.”
Langley recommends a letter from the president that conveys that the alma mater cares about what matters to its alumni, wants to continue to provide education and outreach that will be valuable to them, and accordingly is inviting the alumni to participate in this listening exercise.
In conducting the listening exercise, think outside the box. For example, an institution could think of annual fund callers not just as solicitors but as market researchers. When your call center connects with alumni, make sure alumni know that their voice and their input is being sought out, and that their alma mater is interested in learning how better to provide services that will be useful to them.
Langley offers this sample scenario: “How many institutions,” he asks, “in the face of a significant economic contraction a few years ago, queried their alumni and asked, ‘How is this affecting you? What has happened to your home’s value? How adversely is your employment situation affected?’ A wise institution would have run a ‘state of the family’ report, pulsing alumni about what’s most important to them and how they are faring — and showing that the institution cares.
- Conduct research to better understand the state of your institution’s alumni family, and their level of connection with you
- Let that research inform the content you push out through alumni publications and social media channels
- Connect your alumni with your most distinguished and popular faculty, and with students
- Use webcasts and other virtual technologies to make the learning experience more available to your alumni
“By fostering the exchange of knowledge and the ability to make meaningful connections — and not only career connections but connections within a learning community,” Langley emphasizes, “we create the rationale for fundraising.”
TAKE THE NEXT STEP: MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR ALUMNI VOLUNTEERS
This February 2011 article in Academic Impressions’ Higher Ed Impact offers a primer on harnessing the power of alumni volunteerism. Get tips for building constituency and commitment through volunteer opportunities that engage alumni in the real work of the institution.