Engagement Philosophy: The value of an alumnus
Recently we held one of our monthly Engagement Roundtable’s at Tassl and this particular edition focused on “hot topics” in alumni engagement. It was one of the more spirited events that we’ve held, and many alumni professionals from around the country were active in the conversation. At one point the justification of metrics came up and CASE taskforce on this issue. One thing is abundantly clear, a lot of people have not seen the January whitepaper released from the taskforce.
Regardless of the whitepaper release, there are still plenty of things up in the air. On a daily basis I’m asked, “what should we be tracking?” but I’m not nearly asked often enough “why are we tracking this?”.
I’d like to keep the conversation going and broach some of the subjects that came up. This isn’t geared to develop any sort of consensus, but hopefully a deeper industry discussion on where we’re going. I’m 100% that some of my philosophies and thoughts are flawed, so I’d welcome others thoughts and challenges.
**Here are the upcoming topics: **
Part 1: The value of an alumnus: Is our goal giving or activating?
Part 2: The Engagement Pipeline/Funnel/Pyramid
Part 3: Alumni Personas and the options we provide
Part 4: What does industry standardization look like in alumni relations?
Part 5: What should a modern alumni engagement office look like?
Part 6: Outside challenges and why are we still behind with technology?
Part 1: Is our goal giving or activating?
One question that popped up in our recent Engagement Roundtable was about the value of an individual alumni. How do you place value on one's engagement versus their financial giving? Is an immensely engaged alumnus and active volunteer “worth” the same as a major donor?
It’s nearly an impossible question to answer. If we’re placing a monetary value on all of our alumni, it’s easy for me to make a case for either the major donor or your superhero volunteer. It’s hard to match an immense seven-figure gift, but I could also point to volunteers working in both admissions and advancement who generate monetary value. The meaningful one-to-one relationships these volunteers create can result in influxes in net tuition revenue and fundraising.
Sure, we can quantify the individual results of these volunteers if they are carrying some sort of portfolio, but is it wise to put a dollar value on every, single alumni and judge them as that value? I would hazard to guess that that notion would make most of us squirm.
The question we should be asking is as alumni relations professionals should our goal be a focus on activating and engaging alumni or is it purely giving? Alumni offices come in all shapes and sizes. Some are directly connected with advancement, others are a standalone office, while there is also a trend of merging with Career Services. This certainly shifts and shapes our goals at each institution but as an industry of just alumni relations professionals what should our goals be?
At Tassl we recently performed a whitepaper with engagement professionals from across the country. We asked the professionals how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “The more engaged an alumnus is, the more likely they are to give.” Overwhelmingly, 98% of our participants responded that they agree or strongly agree with the statement. My core philosophy has always been that increased engagement results in increased giving, and it’s pretty clear I’m not alone. So why do we keep ignoring it and sometimes chase dollars before meaningful engagement? It’s something that has already set the advancement industry behind in these current times, and now we’re just compounding it more and more.
There is still an accessible data study out there (that I would love to be a part of). No one has tapped into enough data yet to say increasing your alumni engagement index by X increases your alumni giving rate by Y on average. We need to first standardize metrics for an alumni engagement index, and next collaborate to prove engagement increases giving. The philosophy is widely accepted but for some reason isn’t self-evident yet. So could finally the practice of standardizing metrics (we’re far from it, more in another part of this series) and showing the correlation flip the way we look at the industry? If not, what’s holding us back from focusing on engagement in the future? Are we stuck with legacy programs or out-dated goals and visions?
I recently presented at a CASE conference about, what I refer to as, “Return on Engagement.” During the discussion, someone asked should they be tracking giving as part of an alumni engagement score. I got to sit back and enjoy William & Mary’s Kelly Holdcraft respond that it depends what your goal is and where the ending point of your pyramid/funnel is. She couldn’t be more right about that, if your office is focused on giving, then that should be the top of the pyramid, and that should factor into your score.
That’s not what “alumni relations” should be about though. The tip of the pyramid or end of the funnel should be an activated/engaged alumni. We can influence our alumni’s willingness to give, but we can’t influence their ability to give. If someone demonstrates they have the ability to give, then that's a whole different pyramid/funnel for our friends in advancement to cultivate.
If we want resources to enhance alumni engagement, then we have to fight for “Return on Engagement.” There is no doubt the impact a major donor can have on a university and advancement professionals certainly deserve a ton of credit, but an engaged, lively alumni base will provide event more value in the long run for your institution.