Alumni engagement is big business. In 2016, contributions to colleges and universities hit $41 billion in the United States.
Despite the potential upside, some colleges don’t do a great job of engaging alumni. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for alumni to say “I only ever hear from them when they’re asking me for money.”
Colleges need to spend money to make money, so investing in alumni engagement should be a top priority.
Why is it important?
Maintaining affinity with alumni after graduation can provide invaluable, lifelong support to higher education institutions.
Engaged alumni will support their university both financially and in other meaningful ways.
- Donating money
- Volunteering on committees and boards
- Attending on-campus events to give back to the university community
- Mentoring current students
- Supporting recent graduates as they start their career
- Giving back to the alumni community
The benefits are clearly significant. So what are some of the strategies to improve alumni engagement?
Start alumni engagement early
Universities will have a difficult time building strong engagement with alumni if they are providing a mediocre student experience.
Students are at college for a (relatively) short period and are alumni for their entire lives, so the foundation of their relationship with the university is built well before they become alumni. It’s relatively easy for students to lose their affinity for their college, but it’s difficult for it to develop after they have left if they didn’t enjoy their experience.
Build lifelong relationships by making current students feel valued, and make it clear the journey doesn’t end as soon as they graduate.
A sustained approach is needed for long-term success because alumni engagement won't happen overnight. Design a strategy, execute in the short term and make sure the institution is committed to the long-term outcomes.
Invest in your alumni
The alumni relationship with their alma mater should not be one way. Effective alumni outreach should include offers of professional and personal support such as professional networking events and career services, continuing education opportunities, and use of campus facilities.
Make an effort to connect alumni via reunions, directories, and technology. You can also offer continuing education in graduates’ career fields or provide other general learning opportunities including speaking events and seminars.
Ask for feedback
Maintain open lines of communication at all times.
Alumni should feel welcome to provide feedback on all aspect of the university. Accept all feedback and welcome it as part of the commitment to excellence.
Alumni engagement programs should also solicit feedback from alumni and incorporate alumni suggestions into their development strategies. Measure the effectiveness of existing approaches by seeking regular feedback from alumni so the program can be incrementally improved.
Reduce direct financial requests
Outreach shouldn't be solely focused on donations. While financial contributions are ultimately the outcome that universities are seeking, this can’t be the only communications that alumni receive. Focus on giving, and the financial contributions will come.
Provide targeted, interesting news
The alumni body is hugely diverse. Age, beliefs, location, and background can vary widely.
Alumni should be segmented, so messages are targeted to the right people. Is a recent graduate interested in the same news as someone who left 50 years earlier? And who is more likely to donate? Messaging needs to reflect this.
All content should be interesting and entertaining, which is difficult to do if alumni are all treated the same.
Connect with alumni through social media
Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter facilitate rich content and engaging discussion.
Establish a presence on social media and even consider a purpose build social media tool that will connect your alumni in a private network.
Communications should feel personal
Communications are more likely to elicit a positive response if they are from a real person. Avoid sending information from a generic alumni email, or from the same person over and over.
Universities shouldn't neglect recent graduates even though are less likely to make financial contributions to their alma mater.
Ensure to engage alumni immediately after graduation to avoid a lapse in contact which may lead to permanently losing connection. It is significantly easier to maintain relationships than to build them later.
Keep an up to date database
Effective alumni outreach is impossible without an up to date database of alumni information.
Aim to obtain contact information from students before they graduate and then regularly request updates whenever possible (e.g., by email or at alumni events).
Make introductions amongst interested alumni
Making introductions between alumni helps to promote camaraderie and community.
Facilitate introductions at events, via an online community, or even directly by providing elements of the alumni database to members.
Involve alumni in campus life
Wherever possible, invite alumni to return to campus and meet current students. There are countless ways to do this including seminars, competition panels, speeches, retreats, mentoring or student body events.
When alumni engage with students, it creates valuable relationships that serve both parties as they progress through life.
Assign a reasonable budget
You have to spend money to make money.
Many of the strategies above require an upfront investment, but ultimately, if alumni are to be a priority for universities, then the budget must reflect this commitment.
If done well, the long-term payoff will be immense.