Alumni Relations Forecast 2021: Concerns and Opportunities
A year ago, I published the “Alumni Relations Forecast 2020” to capture the viewpoint of leading chief alumni officers as we entered a new decade. At the time, a concern over relevance surfaced as the most looming issue on the minds of these alumni engagement professionals: in other words, how essential are alumni offices in the lives of their graduates?
Mere weeks after publication, our world was turned upside down by the rapid proliferation of COVID. Alumni offices were forced to quickly confront the unprecedented reality of having to engage alumni from a distance while attempting to salvage the integrity of in-person events important to the institutional heritage, such as reunions and commencement.
So, what is on the horizon for 2021? Nearly three dozen alumni directors from public and private institutions around the world (the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia) offered opinions on their greatest concerns and opportunities as we head into another year influenced by the global pandemic.
In retrospect, many in our field speak most about the unanticipated benefits of COVID’s arrival: mainly, an emphasis on digital-first communications strategies; a heightened spirit of innovation within the alumni office; and a greater urgency in the transition from in-person to online engagement. Clearly, the comfort zone of “we’ve always done it that way,” has been booted out the door.
As Michelle McNeil, alumni head at University of New Brunswick, aptly put it, “The freedom that the pandemic provided us in terms of being able to try new things without fear of failure has been exceptional.”
This sentiment was supported by University of Exeter’s David Watson. “COVID has actually resulted in a number of serendipitous positive outcomes for me to push digital activity that I used to receive pushback on.”
When asked about the greatest challenges facing alumni engagement shops for the coming year, respondents around the globe were unified in their concerns, mostly related to COVID-related aftershocks. The prevailing theme is the overall uncertainty of the pandemic, particularly its impact on budgets and resources as well as having to confront the continuing emotional toll that COVID has had on alumni engagement staff and volunteers.
“Surviving the revenue hit we sustained as a result of the pandemic is a primary concern,” said Washington State’s Tim Pavish. “How do we remedy the fatigue my staff is feeling due to how hard they have worked and how much they have achieved during the pandemic?”
This is not to say that relevance is no longer a focal point among alumni organizations. In the midst of a pandemic that continues to grow in scope, the more immediate concerns of resources and managing human capital have taken center stage.
Being able to take advantage of the power of digital technology was identified as a major area of concern. This is a serious topic that requires considerable discussion as alumni offices continue to rely on digital media, because it’s often another department at the institution – usually Marketing Communications – that drives and executes digital engagement strategies on behalf of the alumni office. MarCom departments may have different priorities (and may exhibit even less urgency) which forces the alumni office to take their place in line.
To be clear, a digital-focused approach to engagement, particularly within a COVID environment, requires focus and daily attention. And a communications strategy done well has taken some alumni offices to new heights, as explained by Sean Price. “Our storytelling has been enhanced in direct correlation with our need to engage virtually,” said the University of Alberta’s alumni chief. “We have improved our video outreach, our podcasts and our digital platforms. This can only make our work more effective in the future.”
Due to COVID, many institutions found themselves in a sudden and reactive position when it came to engagement. Regardless of the uncertainties ahead, it’s nonetheless critical that some strategic “grounding” be in place to provide some semblance of an engagement roadmap. “Do we have the strategic plan and resources in place?” said University of Houston’s Mike Pede. “We need to be able to reach alumni where they are, with the expectation that we will not have very many in-person events.”
In addition, several chief alumni officers expressed concern about not losing a handle on future alumni – those whose exposure to their institution has been shaped in part by a non-traditional, remote experience. “We need to make sure our students see our associations that support and care for them, or we will lose them,” said Northwestern’s Laura Wayland. “If we don’t get this right, we could fail our students – which is our future.”
This sentiment is shared around the world. “We know that student experience is so important to developing an engaged alumnus,” according to Alberta’s Price. “Will students of today have the same level of engagement given that they have not attended our campus in person?”
Concerns = Opportunities
Despite these hard realities, there is a feeling that the overriding concerns heading into 2021 may also represent the greatest opportunities for success. The most prevalent of these is the notion that alumni shops will be looking to capitalize on what they learned through digital programming and begin to develop hybrid models of engagement. “I think there will be an expectation that was not simply a return from B back to A,” offered Raphe Beck from the University of Oregon, “but rather, we now offer both A and B.”
A body of research in the alumni field points to “lack of proximity to the institution” as one of the key reasons why alumni don’t engage. But the influence of digital engagement has changed all that, as characterized by Ian Moore from Queen’s University Belfast: “The biggest opportunity is country–agnostic programming,” said Moore. “Activities will be based around personal interest … not where you live.”
The idea of country agnosticism, as Moore put it, is also embraced by Imperial College London. “Our biggest opportunity for alumni engagement will be the opportunity to further develop our global virtual programming, from events, careers support and coaching programs, and diverse opportunities to engage alumni in different volunteering initiatives,” said ICL’s Nicola Pogson. “More targeted communications are providing great response rates, and we see real opportunities for developing more exciting digital outreach.”
DEI as a Focal Point
Many of the responses that I gathered from this global cohort focused understandably on the direct implications of COVID. Yet a significant tranche of replies from US-based alumni directors addressed a “COVID-neutral” topic that is very much on the minds of academic institutions here: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Rutgers’ Josh Harraman views this as both the biggest concern and greatest opportunity: “I think the most pressing thing to determine is how are we, as alumni professionals, defining our role in the larger racial reckoning currently happening around the world,” Harraman said. “We work in institutions that are slow to change and sometimes resistant to it. Yet, we have an opportunity, and an obligation to do better in engaging alumni and donors of color and recruiting and retaining professionals of color.”
This feeling is underscored by Steve Grafton at the University of Michigan. “It is time for alumni engagement to become truly inclusive. It is not enough to simply strive for more diverse participation in our current programming,” said Grafton. “We must know our alumni populations well enough to create the space in which every one of them feels he, she or they belong regardless of their identity, background, experience or perspective.”
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu advises that “in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” We’ve certainly experienced this first-hand over the past year: chaos initially puts us on our heels, but once settled, the opportunities are abundant as many leading alumni directors agree. There are many new pathways to engage alumni in ways never imagined – and on a much more sustained global basis – that stand to only enhance the brand of the alumni office.
Ceri Jones from the London School of Economics surmised that “the power of the alumni community can truly be shown during crisis.” She added, “What alumni engagement can offer at this time may be the once in a decade opportunity to show high value outcomes to the institution and to the wider community.” A fitting characterization of what lay ahead in our field, Ceri.