During a recent client campus visit, I had the opportunity to meet with the College’s advancement team. Just weeks before going public with their largest ever comprehensive campaign, the team was lamenting the untimely realization that the bulk of the College’s communications with its alumni were almost singularly focused on soliciting donations. Their concern, of course—an absolutely valid one—was that their alumni had grown fatigued, and maybe even disenchanted with their alma mater, feeling that all the College really cares about is the next donation.
It’s never too late to begin considering better ways to foster earlier and stronger alumni engagement with your institution. Today especially, young graduates building their early careers are shouldering considerable debt loads, bracing themselves for a monthly loan payment that may continue into middle age. If an institution hasn’t worked to build and sustain strong emotional engagement with its alumni base, it risks alienating them early and for the long term. Alums may still value their experiences and their degrees, but if they’ve lost the emotional connection they enjoyed with their alma mater as students, keeping them close, and invested, as alums is truly difficult.
Here are just a few tips to consider as you evaluate your own institution’s approach to establishing and sustaining strong emotional connections with your alumni:
- Engage Early. Don’t wait until graduation to begin building a culture of philanthropy on your campus. Your students are alums in the making. Help them to understand what that means early on. Most institutions today teach the benefits of service, and millennials and Gen Z’ers have prioritized and experienced the “going out and doing” early and often. But conversations with students about the transformative power of philanthropy—for both the giver and the receiver—aren’t as pervasive. The earlier students understand and experience the joy that can come from philanthropy, the more likely they will be active givers as alums.
- Give Them What They Want. Research demonstrates that institutions experiencing high alumni participation rates have an extensive peer network among alumni and programming that provides alumni exposure to, and connection with, faculty. Jim Langley of Langley Innovations suggests that in the early stages of philanthropic cultivation, the advancement office should take a more facilitative role by coordinating faculty and alumni interactions on timely topics. In this way, Langley says, alums are given an opportunity to learn and get valuable information from people they trust and at a standard of excellence that they trust. If the advancement office is successful in facilitating these connections—be it a research-based webinar hosted by a faculty member, or, say, an alumni/faculty networking event—then it creates a reason to “introduce itself.”
- Don’t Let Communication Lapse. Communication lapses with alums can risk a permanent loss in connection. Keep them connected with your culture immediately after graduation and help them evolve into the next stage of their lifecycle with your institution. Consider networking breakfasts, leadership opportunities in the alumni association or within the institution, contests, awards, ambassadorship opportunities, and promotional events. Do research among your alumni base to find out their preferences for communications—what they want to hear about and how they want to hear it. Then consistently provide that to them through the appropriate channels.
The New Year is officially underway. It’s a great time to plan and start implementing one or all of these tactics and observe your level of alumni engagement throughout 2016. If you’d like some more ideas or help with execution, get in touch.