Alumni Relations Forecast 2020: Relevancy Rules

Harpeth Hall School, Nashville, TN

Alumni Relations Forecast 2020: Relevancy Rules

The alumni relations field today is in a good place: institutions have never been so consistently strategic, outcomes-based and intentional in their approach to alumni engagement. A growing business-oriented discipline toward strategy and programming has contributed to the rise in the stature of alumni relations as a more vital and respected institutional asset.

Alumni professionals have worked hard to get here – even if we still hear friend-raiser tossed around every now and then.

So, what’s on the horizon as we head into the new decade? Despite many advancements in our industry, I recently asked leading chief alumni officers to identify their single most pressing issue or concern moving forward.

More than 50 colleagues from Council of Alumni Association Executives (CAAE) institutions and beyond offered their insights, starting with fundamental operational concerns such as finances (budgets and revenue), data integrity, effective communications, annual participation, student-alumni career connections and the like. There isn’t an alumni director that hasn’t dealt with one or more of these topics.

Porter Garner, President and CEO of the Association of Former Students at Texas A&M, had a different take that’s worth paying attention to. He expressed caution about the trend of “churn” among institutional leadership that can affect shifting priorities as to the importance of alumni relations. Amen to that, Porter.

But a broader topic emerged as far and away the most looming issue heading into 2020: Relevance. In other words, how essential are alumni offices in the lives of their graduates?

This sampling of commentary underscores this concern:

  • “How do we create a mutually beneficial relationship with alumni that is both genuine and meaningful?”
  • “How do we establish a deeper connection with our alumni – particularly millennials?”
  • “My concern is keeping alumni relations relevant on my campus.”
  • “Continuing to find new, relevant ways to connect with our alumni is the number one issue.”
  • “We lack a comprehensive understanding of the demographics and psychographics of alumni.”

This reminds me of a CAAE gathering some time ago when a colleague posed this provocative question: “If our alumni association turned out the lights, would anyone care?” The room instantly chilled.

The message was clear: Dealing with operational and funding issues may a fact of life, but we’d better start to figure out the needs and motivations of alumni.

I experienced this first-hand in a series of “under 35” focus groups where I asked participants their thoughts on the word alumni. A fairly benign question, but one response still sticks in my head: “When I hear ‘alumni,’ I think old, rich, white, drive Mercedes’ and get good tickets to football games.” In other words, I can’t relate to the Alumni Association. Simply, we weren’t seen as relevant – and this was the impetus to develop deliverables and a marketing strategy that addressed this issue head-on.

Society today reflects a customer-first environment. Consumers engage on their own terms; this has profoundly impacted media choices and product delivery channels as well as an uncompromising expectation of remarkable customer service, convenience and speed. In the business world, dedication to understanding and anticipating consumer needs is standard practice.

How we engage with alumni must not be any different. But this is a cultural shift: It’s no longer about us at the alumni office, but about them, our stakeholders. No wonder this is front of mind with so many alumni directors.

Getting a handle on relevancy begins with a deeper commitment to alumni research; understanding the importance of audience segmentation; and taking on a more contemporary approach to communications and engagement, among other factors. For example:

  • Alumni of different generational eras have widely varying views toward engagement, giving and their belief in making an impact on the institution. Empirical research – or even qualitative insights vis-à-vis more in-depth discussions – will help to shed light on these attitudinal differences.
  • Institutional communications strategies don’t often align with how alumni utilize media, particularly on a digital basis. For instance, just because you may deploy Facebook (to push, push, push content) doesn’t mean you have a Facebook strategy (to engage alumni in meaningful conversation).
  • Similarly, most online alumni magazines don’t possess nearly the digital acuity (videos, user interaction, real-time content) that readers can easily experience elsewhere. What is the relevance of a “Class Notes” section that contains six-month-old alumni updates?
  • Volunteer engagement is our bread-and-butter, but many alumni volunteer opportunities online are not intuitive. The opportunity to “Fill out the form below and let us know if you’re interested in volunteering” fails the relevancy and convenience tests in so many ways.
  • CASE’s work on alumni engagement metrics will provide a much-needed framework as to performance and accountability. However, use caution: there will be a natural tendency to focus on numbers at the expense of taking the time to listen to alumni and to develop programming, communications and engagement opportunities that relate to their needs.

These are just a few examples of how the “relevancy” issue can begin to be confronted. I’d welcome additional thoughts as to what lay ahead in 2020. And thanks again to the many alumni relations leaders that contributed their perspectives to this writing.