The 12 Characteristics of a High Performing Alumni Relations Office

The 12 Characteristics of a High Performing Alumni Relations Office

image: Gonzaga University

The COVID-19 era has turned our world of Advancement upside down. Dramatic belt-tightening among public and private institutions has alumni relations offices feeling a mix of stress and resource-poor, and grim financial projections are beginning to extend well into the next fiscal.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise in the quality of the alumni relations operation; furthermore, my observation is that alumni offices must quickly elevate their game to remain relevant to both alumni and to their institution. We have found 12 basic traits shared by high performing alumni offices that allow them to effectively serve their constituents irrespective of the length of COVID-era budget challenges.

  1. A Comprehensive Strategic Plan
    This should go without saying, but a comprehensive, metrics-based strategic plan for alumni engagement will provide a framework that supports a greater sense of priority and focus no matter the extent of any budgetary challenges. Regardless of today’s economic uncertainty, there is no greater opportunity than a time like this to invest in a strategic alumni engagement roadmap.
  2.  A Digital-First Media Strategy
    It’s not enough to post regularly on social media. The question is, what is the alumni organization’s social media strategy? Furthermore, there must be an awareness that “traditional” media (i.e., print, direct mail, postcards and so forth) have quickly given way to digital initiatives that can significantly increase the footprint of an alumni organization as well as its ability to reach alumni quickly and in highly engaging ways. A digital-first strategy must become the focus of your marketing communications priorities.
  3. Serves as the Alumni Gateway to the Institution
    High performing alumni relations offices function as a key portal for ALL alumni engagement at their institution – whether on campus, in communities, online or globally. The various ways that alumni can interact with the institution – networking, feedback, advocacy, volunteerism – may all be facilitated through the alumni office, which also serves as the voice of its graduates. Leading alumni offices have shifted their focus from “join and receive discounts” to “help advance your university” – a substantial change in dialogue that only a strong alumni gateway can foster.
  4. Access to the Institutional Leadership
    Regular “face time” with the President, Provost and deans will greatly heighten campus-wide appreciation for the role of the alumni office. This doesn’t have to be a frequent interface, particularly if there is not a direct line of reporting – but if the alumni office is to support the mission of the university, then it can’t effectively do so at arm’s length from the institution’s leadership. Leaders of high performing alumni relations offices benefit from this level of visibility.
  5. An Effective Alumni Advisory Board
    A strong board is an invaluable asset that provides advice and policy that supports the institution’s strategy and goals. Much of the work of an alumni association occurs within board committees, so board members of a high performing alumni relations office commit to fully understanding their role of in advancing the institution. Ohio State’s emeritus alumni director Dan Heinlen cautions that alumni boards can seem “weak” when compared to other university volunteer units (i.e., Trustees, Foundation Boards), where members are too often appointed as a reward for being good volunteers rather than for the leadership skill/influence/power needed to strengthen the board’s work.
  6. A Business-Focused Approach to Engagement
    Many alumni relations mission statements are too vague: “Support the interests of the university by establishing mutually beneficial relationships.” High performing alumni relations offices develop more specific mission statements and clearly-stated strategic plans tied to institutional goals, and link operating budgets to key performance metrics. Understanding the alumni audience through effective use of research is a necessary business process; for instance, Stanford has translated this into seven core relational segments of alumni, supported through strategy and fund allocation. It’s a misnomer to think that alumni offices shouldn’t or couldn’t operate in the same vein as a for-profit company: effective alumni engagement doesn’t happen without a relevant strategy and core performance measures.
  7. A Robust and Engaged Volunteer Network
    A network of volunteers is the alumni office’s “arms and legs” outside of the campus grounds. Their advocacy, recruitment, fundraising efforts and contributions to career advancement of an institution’s graduates is second to none – yet they must be mobilized in an organized manner and trained as leaders to more effectively serve alma mater. Otherwise, loosely-formed groups of alumni will meet on a largely social basis, undercutting their potential to be an engaged network. The high performing alumni relations office enhances this network by establishing pathways to a culture of lifelong involvement, beginning from the student years.
  8. A Culture of Purposeful Programming
    Many regional events attract a handful of alumni; are devoid of institutional programming; have no donor component or post-event follow-up; and cost thousands in food, beverage and travel. Other events are driven by alumni in largely social settings. The high performing alumni relations office adds to the social component by bringing the university to its alumni in more meaningful ways through collaboration with academic units and other campus partners. An institutional message is central to an effective alumni relations program; coordination with the development office ensures greater attendance; and post-event follow-up mines attendees for their potential to volunteer and give. This gives a greater sense of purpose to an external alumni programming strategy.
  9. A More Centralized Approach to Alumni Relations
    Alumni offices do not exist on an island but instead should be positioned to advance the institution as a whole. Alumni relations efforts across campus (i.e., within the colleges as well as the career services, admissions, student programming and athletics offices) are often weak or non-existent; the high performing alumni relations office works “centrally” to help elevate the broader institutional alumni engagement effort in a collaborative manner while sharing budgetary, marketing and programming resources.
  10. In Sync with Advancement Partners
    Alumni relations is one of the “three legs” of the advancement continuum. But how often, for instance, is the alumni magazine published with no input from … the alumni office? And tension often exists between alumni relations and development. High performing alumni relations offices work hand-in-hand with its advancement partners, each contributing to the success of the other. Of course, this requires a Vice President that understands the strength of seamless collaboration among alumni relations, communications and development (particularly the Annual Fund) but the result is a powerful and sustained advancement effort – and recognition of the importance of alumni engagement as an institutional asset.
  11. A Professional, Motivated Team
    The alumni relations profession has become increasingly vital to the success of the institution and requires the best talent, top to bottom. Alumni offices are no longer parking lots for retired faculty; alumni status (from the hiring institution) does not matter; and young staff members see alumni relations as a career path, not merely an alternative until they figure out their next move. Leaders of high performing alumni relations offices focus on cultivating and retaining talent and establishing an organizational culture of professionalism and pursuit of excellence.
  12. Committed to a Culture of Innovation
    The notion of “we’ve always done it this way” is an anathema to alumni offices, yet many continue to operate via tried-and-true practices because “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The high performing alumni relations office is relentless in its quest to innovate and improve its programming, technology and communications methods and seeking out best practices – particularly when it comes to understanding the needs of younger demographics.

Obviously, budgets and staffing matter to any alumni relations office. However, none of these 12 characteristics are constrained by a lack of resources; rather, they represent an overall approach on the part of the alumni relations leadership, staff and board that the office is a vital institutional asset whose contributions to the advancement function must be maximized.