A Fresh Look at Alumni Relations

Revolutionize your Fundraising by Turning Your Development Effort On Its Head

Have you ever thought of your alumni relations activities as the preeminent part of your school’s advancement effort? Or do your colleague have an “I-suppose-it’s-important-but-I’m-not-really-sure-what-they-do” mentality about your staff? Far too often, alumni relations is seen as a second-class citizen in development, sort of a simple minded cousin that the family lets hang around.

Part of the fault lies with the folks in alumni relations. Alumni professionals need to do all they can to learn the lingo of development. Financial goals are quite easy to track and provide a firm benchmarks that clearly show progress. Measuring things like alumni participation can help alumni professionals justify their existence, but that sort of statistic doesn’t show the whole picture.

At its core, alumni relations is about relationships between people and the school. Quantifying the growth in relationships is very challenging. A strong alumni effort can bring the admissions office more qualified students, can provide the college and career office with more expertise and mentoring, and can even supply the school with strong faculty candidates. But how do you quantify those results in a way that the people making the budget decisions can understand?

FIRST, BREAK ALL THE RULES

Believe it or not, the Gallup Organization may have provided some help. In their book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, make a tangential reference about the reasons customers go beyond mere patronage to actual advocates of a company. The Gallup study looked at what customers wanted across a wide variety of industries and found four expectations that remained remarkably constant:

  1. accuracy
  2. availability
  3. partnership
  4. advice

These expecations are listed in the order of increasing importance. The lowest-level expectation is accuracy. Customers want to get what they came for and to be billed for what they actually got. It goes without saying that if the company isn’t accurate, customers will not be loyal.

The second lowest level of expectation is availability. Ours is an age of convenience, look at all the businesses that have drive-up windows or delivery services. People expect to be able to do business quickly and easily.

Fortunately, these low-level expectations are easy to meet, but Buckingham and Coffman warn “both of these expectations, even if met successfully, can only prevent customer dissatisfaction.” People aren’t going to get excited an accurate bill or a drive-through window. What makes an organization stand out is fulfilling both the two lower expectations and the next two: partnership and advice.

Partnership is defined as customers wanting to know that you’re on the same side of the table as they are. You’re just like them. Customers want to feel understood. The authors cite things like “staff picks” at book and video rental stores as ways some companies are saying, “We’re like you. We read books (or watch videos) too.”

According to the Gallup study, the highest level of expectation is advice. “Customers feel the closest bond to organizations that have helped them learn.” Fortunately for schools, this is what we exist to do! We help people learn.

If you consistently deliver on all four levels of expectation, Buckingham and Coffman say, “you will have successfully transformed prospects into advocates.”

ALUMNI AFFAIRS: SECOND-CLASS CITIZEN OR CROWN JEWEL?

These four levels of expectation are great news for those of us in alumni relations! Here’s an objective study, conducted by the venerable Gallup Organization no less, showing why alumni relations may well be the crown jewel of every school’s advancement effort!

The development office can take care of accuracy and availability. But Buckingham and Coffman clearly state that those first two needs only keep the customers, in our case “alumni,” from being dissatisfied. They do not help make alumni wildly crazy about your organization.

Wild enthusiasm is created when customers feel a partnership with your institution and ask for your advice. Some of this happens in the development office’s “donor cultivation” process, but it’s limited because each major gifts officer has her own portfolio of assignments that she needs to work through. In most cases, the development office would be out of its realm to focus on those too heavily.

But not the alumni office. Homecoming, regional events, and affinity gatherings, all help create partnerships between the alumni office and alumni, as well as among the alumni themselves. Career networking, mentoring programs, even book groups, can be forums for the alumni office to provide alumni with advice.

When all four expectations are being met, you’re creating an environment conducive to turning alumni from mere past-students into raving fans for your school!

Fundraising isn’t getting easier. Our alumni are more distracted than ever. And stand-bys like mailings and phonathons are not as effective. If we want our schools to survive and thrive in the coming decades, we need to help our alumni become “evangelists” for our organization.

I’m convinced that schools are way ahead of business when it comes to treating people humanely and developing relationships with them. I find it incredibly ironic that as companies strive for more personalize relationships with their customers, schools are striving to become more business-like. Measuring results and figuring out return-on-investment are incredibly important. But many schools seem to be concentrating on this at the expense of their alumni relations effort.

The Gallup study clearly shows us that an effective alumni relations program may be our most important competitive advantage!


This is taken from Marc A. Pitman's Creating Donor Evangelists. The Creating Donor Evangelists program is packed with practical ways any nonprofit, not just schools, can help their donors become raving fans of their organization. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to the Creating Donor Evangelists page.