Disintermediation: The Changing Demands of Alumni Relations

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

When I hear an alumni relations professional say that alumni relations programs have been disintermediated from their alumni, more often than not, I cringe. The theme of disintermediation, or the thought that social media and other technologies have decreased the alumni’s “need” for their alma mater, crops up often, and while it should signal a change to which we as alumni relations professionals must adapt, it is often misused as an excuse for why our programs are dying.

The Challenges We’re All Facing

It’s no wonder that the alumni relations profession is facing dynamic change. Since the founding of the oldest alumni association at Williams College in 1821, the profession of alumni relations has been built on traditions of the alma mater. Looking back instead of looking forward, alumni associations love to celebrate long-held traditions, and prefer to stick with existing programs, services and people because “we’ve always done it that way.”

For many institutions, the typical set of activities includes a homecoming, reunions, alumni directory. Historically, these have been possible primarily because the alumni association was the glue that connected long lost friends to one another and to the institution. But, with the advent of the internet, even prospective students connect with one another outside the institution’s purview or control. Certainly, many friends and classmates can be easily “found” on social networks, and thanks to the incessant stream of updates about marriages, children, and job changes pushed out from the same, one never need lose touch at all.

As Alumni Futures blogger Andy Shaindlin wrote in 2012 in a Huffington Post article: “Online social networks are not merely alternate sites for alumni organizations; they are alternatives to alumni organizations themselves.”

Missing the Mark: 2 Examples

I have two examples in my own life where my alma maters may have missed the mark.

For more than thirty years, my friends from college and I have come together every month for a “Girls Night Out.” We’ve convened at each other’s homes and in restaurants, month in and month out, and reveled in growing up and growing older, together. Of course, it was our alma mater that brought us together, but even my mention of the gathering to the alumni director fell on deaf ears. Not an encouraging word? Not a set of memorabilia to share with the group? Not a “party-in-a-box” to support the throng? I was surprised. I served as class secretary at the same institution for nearly two decades, and I can recall personally receiving less than a handful of notes. And, ultimately, the alumni office decided it would be easier to do without me — and took me, the volunteer, out of the equation.

At the university where I spent my “junior year abroad,” I made lifelong friends who drop anything when I come to town, and I do similarly when they visit me. But since I was a special student, I’ve nary a publication, email, or letter come my way asking me to join an activity or support the university. My full year there, at a French-speaking university in Canada, was so life-changing that I tracked down my colleagues who serve as alumni relations professionals there at a conference in 2011 and suggested to them that I was willing to be solicited and included. I passed on my business card. But, I never heard a thing. Yet I keep in touch with my friends from that time, with Facebook posts, emails, holiday cards and letters. The place is so meaningful to me that I would certainly become involved if asked.

Who has disintermediated whom?

We Need a Fresh Focus on Relationships

We shouldn’t be surprised that our work is changing, because education is being disrupted at a rapid pace. Access to education is affected by the internet, online education, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and more. As alumni relations professionals, it’s our responsibility to experience and understand the deep community created online, whether by taking part in a MOOC or by learning more about the flipped classroom.

Moreover, I’ve become tired of the alumni relations staffers who profess that they aren’t interested in social media either personally or as part of the job. The key to being a successful alumni relations professional is in building relationships — online or off.

3 Steps to Get Started

What are some simple steps you can take to get back into the hole that disintermediation may have left in your alumni programming? Here are three:

  1. Take stock of the communities that have been built on social networks without you.
    Take an inventory of all the groups, pages and accounts that bear your institution’s name and that were organized outside of the institution’s efforts. Ask to join, fan, or follow the accounts, and participate in the conversations.
  2. Define or redefine alumni engagement at your institution.
    At MIT, we use three key measures of alumni and other constituent engagement — face-to-face, virtual and philanthropic — in a Venn diagram. If an alumnus participates in all three, we call that the “mindshare,” signaling we have garnered more of their interest, time and energy. What measures do you have to indicate your programs are strong and maintaining alumni interest?
  3. Get Social.
    If you don’t yet have basic social media accounts and skills, get yourself online and set them up. Brand your authentic self. Follow your alumni, and like, retweet, or comment on their postings. (Be sure to follow any institutional guidelines for social media usage.)

So, where else am I looking for inspiration? Show me an alumni relations director who is trying out Periscope at events, who is blogging, tweeting, and meeting people where they are, on- and offline. And, show me the same person who gets on an airplane, picks up the phone, and looks for opportunities to be at the intersection of their alumni – wherever that may be. That inspires me!