I’m asked regularly whether alumni associations that charge dues should consider changing their membership model to become more inclusive. What’s driving this question is the desire to engage all alumni at some level regardless of their member status, and this is where the alumni relations field appears to be headed.
After all, these are alumni associations – not dues-paying membership associations.
Dues-based membership programs were created generations ago at a time when many alumni associations were formed independent of their institutions. Dues represented the organization’s principal funding source, and even today a well performing membership program can make or break an alumni association’s annual operating budget (despite engaging only about 15-20 percent of the alumni base every year). That kind level of revenue isn’t easy to replace.
But here’s the quandary: while membership dues may fund the alumni association, an engaged alumni body fuels the institution. And if the alumni association isn’t engaging the alumni body, then no one is.
There are a number of membership programs that still work extremely well, most notably at the larger public institutions. Even so, stalwarts such as Michigan and Penn State are beginning to shift their messaging to promote the broader impact of alumni involvement. The notion of “Join – and here are the benefits you’ll receive!” has become too limiting and – dare I say – largely irrelevant in this new era of engagement.
Others have jettisoned their membership programs altogether. “Membership” status is now granted to all alumni, and those that paid dues in the past are now urged to make a donation and receive what were formerly considered member “benefits.”
So, this is not a matter of whether membership dues programs are still worth it: that’s far too general of a statement to be broadly applicable. It’s more a question of how each alumni association – based on their structure, mission, advancement model and culture – chooses to best engage its graduates.
Those that have (or wish to continue) a membership program might consider the following:
- Avoid any phrasing that implies that “membership has its privileges.” This isn’t American Express – and there is little if anything that an alumni association could ever offer that lives up to the promise of said “privileges.” This approach, while smacking of exclusivity, also undermines the fact that relationships, not transactions, represent the key to sustained alumni engagement. If someone joins for benefits, then they’ll likely leave once the benefits lose their luster.
- Invite all alumni to participate as members of the university community. It’s a fairly easy process to provide all graduates with basic access to e-newsletters, lifetime email forwarding, the alumni online directory, career services offerings and volunteer opportunities. By opening up a dialogue in this small way, alumni will experience a greater sense of being valued regardless of their membership status.
- By the same token, offer something of real importance to paid members. I’m not talking about hotel discounts, group insurance programs or “exclusive access” to an affinity card – items that are generally available to the public. Every institution offers something unique that alumni can covet.
- Pay attention to life members, particularly those that joined more than 20 years ago. If life member dues are priced a rate roughly 20 times that of the annual dues, then they eventually become a “cost” to the alumni association after two decades. Turn this “cost” into a resource: these alumni are rarely asked for anything beyond their membership, yet the advocacy and support (i.e., scholarships) that this audience can provide is impressive.
- Conduct ongoing research for all segments of alumni: members, non-members and former members. What you might learn anecdotally (focus groups are particularly effective here) can help bring lapsed alumni back into the fold; solidify the appeal of membership for current members and strengthen the potential for greater outreach into the non-member base.
Any alumni association looking to disband its membership program – assuming that the absence of dues revenue is being subsidized by the institution – must think carefully about its transitional messaging. It is critical that dues-paying members (particularly at the life level) be recognized for their past support and acknowledged as important to the future of the institution.
The most valuable thing alumni can offer their institution is their advice and advocacy. As private (i.e., non-dues based) institutions have demonstrated, a membership program is not necessarily the key to engagement. For this reason, a more holistic and inclusive approach – dues or no dues – is the key to growing the alumni engagement pool for the long-term.