Taking Alumni Engagement to the Next Level
The tides are shifting in Alumni Relations
and there are several passionate professionals seizing this opportunity to define which direction the industry will head, determining how to have the most impact and enhancing the value of their Institution’s educational experience.
These shifts are closely related to what has been a hot trend in other industries--“big data.” Now, “big data” isn’t meant to be a scary term for Alumni Relations Professionals, but should thought of as the application of data to pull insights and become more impactful in the way they engage their constituents. The process of becoming more resourceful will become critical as steady funding for Education remains at risk.
I recently sat down with Joseph Volin, who is one of the passionate individuals leading the pack when it comes to thinking about data in the Alumni Relations space.
Joe is truly one of the brightest young minds in Alumni Relations and we are excited to see his significant impact on the future of alumni engagement and the role of data in Alumni Relations Departments.
At 30 years young, Joe has had significant experience across several different areas of engagement within education. Starting his career in Student Affairs at Northern Illinois University and then transitioning to Residence Life at Illinois Wesleyan, Joe saw engagement in the golden years - the years we are captured on campus.
The shift from Student Relations to Alumni Relations at his own alma mater - Lewis University - was an easy one for Joe. Here he saw the exciting realm of continuous relationship building that lasts beyond the 4 years on campus along with the challenges of maintaining lifetime connections.
Joe’s passion for the industry and focus on metrics even bled out into his personal life when he decided to focus his doctoral research on “Understanding the relationship between undergraduate student involvement and subsequent alumni engagement,” while continuing to engage alumni in his full time job at Lewis University.
From Day 1 in the doctorate program, he knew he wanted to formalize research to better understand what he had seen through his engagement experiences. “We all hear that engagement and likelihood to give financially are correlated, but how much? What does that really look like? “ said Joe.
In an industry where most insights in engagement are anecdotal, Joe was ready to prove it with facts. The importance of understanding early predictors of giving and what engagements create that valuable connection will be critical to the success of Alumni Relations in future.
“Enrollments are struggling - no one is immune to it. Fewer resources are being allocated to schools, but you are expected to provide more resources for colleges and universities,” Joe stressed.
Aligning himself with strong support from faculty and outreach to interested parties through CASE, Joe set out to answer the important questions regarding the relationship between “non-monetary engagements” and other involvements with an institution.
In his research he broke down and assessed data sets based on academic affiliations and special interest affinity groups to better understand segmented correlations and engagement behaviors. Joe used quantitative methods research provided by an institution who volunteered through the CASE listservs. Leveraging SPSS to run statistics, he hoped to find a positive and significant relationship between student engagement and high involvement (examples: receiving an honor at graduation or student organization involvement) and the level of monetary and non-monetary engagements.
His analysis included exploring a variety of measurements around event engagement, volunteerism, communications, and monetary engagements (including unique and total engagement) changes in engagement and costs to engage.
So what did he find?
After analyzing the data, Joe was able to find significant correlations between undergraduate student involvement and subsequent alumni engagement (both non-monetary and monetary).
While these insights might deviate across institutions, he was able to determine from the sample that the Business alumni and STEM alumni were more likely to give than Fine Arts and Social Sciences. However, Education, Fine Arts, and STEM alumni were more likely to get involved in non-monetary engagements over Business alumni.
Professional program graduates were found to be “more generous” when it comes to giving because they leave the institution with the skills to launch their career without the need for an additional advanced degree.
In addition to sharing his experiences in higher education and his passion of analytics as part of his doctorate program, we also asked Joe to share with us some advice we could provide to other Alumni Relations Professions in this changing industry.
What is the one biggest piece of advice you’d give other Alumni Relations Professionals?
"Alumni Relations is still just as much an art and a science. It is imperative that you start thinking about data. Recognize that there are certain things you won’t be able to understand now, but the data will prepare you better for the future. if you don’t have it, you can’t use it. The question we are answering is not “how do we fix it now”, but more around what do we need to start doing to be ready for the engagement landscape 5 years from now and beyond.”
“Make sure people are highly engaged and develop the culture and habit of engagement so when they develop the capacity, the conversations are much easier.“
For Institutions not measuring engagement currently, where should they start?
“If you are overwhelmed by the idea of data management and have a current focus on just event attendance, expand your focus to Volunteer Management as the next step in your engagement strategy. Leverage your faculty and staff bringing alumni back to campus and your alumni boards as new data points to build out your metrics. Treat volunteers like your donors. Start cultivating those relationships to keep them in your engagement pipeline. ”
Once you have the data, what do you do with it?
“Once you have it, good data should be utilized for segmentations to reach the right alumni for different programs and initiatives. Know what you want to do with it and what is important for your institution. Use data to indicate key indicators for where you can improve and have a stronger return on your engagement. This can mean different things to different institutions.”
What are the other big opportunities you see in alumni engagement?
“Assessment of your programs is just as critical as the planning and execution, because you can run the risk of losing faithful alumni if they have a bad experience.”
“No alumnus/a is created equal - you need to ask your alumni what types of engagement interest them and recognize that what your alumni need or are looking for may be different than programs your peers are doing.”
What advice would you give to alumni regarding staying engaged?
“You get a lot of great experiences from your alma mater. People are quick to write off experiences as transactional. As an alumnus/a, you want to make sure to improve the experience for students after you, which in turn increases the value of your education.”
The team at Tassl thanks Joe for his insight and friendship. We also congratulate him on all his success and finishing his doctorate last year!