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Alumni Engagement: What We’ve Gotten Wrong And How To Fix It

By January 9, 2018

Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, Higher Ed Researcher, Director of Alumni Engagement, University of San FranciscoBy: Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, Higher Ed Researcher, Director of Alumni Engagement, University of San Francisco

At some level, every fundraiser knows that alumni engagement is an important driver of alumni giving. At the same time, the advancement profession seems perpetually perplexed by how to measure engagement and apply those measures to increase philanthropy. Why is that?

It might be hard to admit, but the answer is elementary: most colleges and universities just don’t know their alumni very well, and certainly not in the depth that most consumer brands know their customers.

If you're considering fundraising software, an alumni database, advancement CRM, or for an alumni management system, you should read this article. One tip is: you need to manage alumni differently than you manage students. Get inspiration on how to think about how your technology can help. Learn more from Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, Higher Ed Researcher, Director of Alumni Engagement, University of San Francisco

Generally speaking, advancement offices have access to a pretty accurate picture of who alumni were as students, but very little information on who they are now, where they are now, and what they are doing now. Alumni databases (there are few good ones) do an okay job of storing data on who alumni were when they graduated, but a poor job of capturing and manipulating data on who they are today – the very type of information that is most relevant to engagement strategy.

As a result, advancement professionals are primed to treat alumni as former students instead of getting to know them as mature adults. This leads to false assumptions about current alumni needs and the relevant steps a school might take to increase engagement by addressing those needs. Consider the following:

    Two graduates of the same school live in the same neighborhood. They are each married with high school aged children. Both own their homes and work as professionals in their community. Both make annual donations to their alma mater. Now, think about the needs these two people share at this stage in their lives (i.e. career, education, family, travel, etc.). Do those needs have anything to do with who these two alumni were as students?

Probably not. So why do advancement shops spend the majority of their time, effort, and resources trying to engage alumni based upon things like degree earned and class year?

Social science teaches us that people experience connection as a result of having their needs fulfilled. Engagement is the assignment of value to that connection. What we lack in advancement is a method of understanding the alumni experience the way graduates do – a measure of the alumni-alma mater relationship based in social science – not just a predictive formula, which many a consultant will happily sell you. We need a meaningful metric that:

    1. Unpacks the way alumni perceive their relationship to their alma mater,
    2. Describes how that perception manifests more or less strongly in alumni self-identity, and
    3. Reveals what steps institutions can take to influence that level of alumni connection and thereby increase philanthropy.

One such metric is “Alumni Role Identity” – a measure of a graduate’s level of connection to their alma mater and an indicator of their inclination to donate to same. Different from alumni affinity, alumni role identity is a measure of how deeply a graduate’s affinity/pride is manifest in their own self-concept, or the degree to which their role as an alumna/us is a salient part of who they are.

 University of San FranciscoRecent research at the University of Kentucky and the University of San Francisco has shown that increased alumni role identity is both positively associated with giving and open to influence through direct institutional actions (McDearmon 2011, 2013; Dillon, 2017). And the best part – it turns out that alumni identity is a pretty good measure of engagement, and completely independent of a graduate’s student experience.

So how can we use alumni identity to quantify engagement and propel philanthropy? Check out the next post in this three-part series on the science of alumni connection and mark your calendars for our upcoming webinar.

Want to learn more? Join Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon and the Higher Education team for our upcoming webinar, “Alumni Engagement Scoring: What Does the Science Tell Us?” on Tuesday, January 30 at 2:00 pm EDT/ 11:00 am PDT where we’ll explore:

  • What’s behind alumni role identity; how to measure and influence it
  • The relationship between alumni identity and alumni giving
  • 3 tactics to increase alumni feelings of connection
  • How to operationalize alumni identity as an engagement score

Register for Webinar