What is your Alumni Relations programme worth to you? The implications of getting consent from alumni.

November 21, 2016

Forget fundraising – your alumni relations programme has just become your most important priority for the next two years and beyond. Hang on a second… fundraising is income generating; surely that should be our priority? Then there’s the General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect; surely we need to make that our number one priority to avoid being fined? What about student recruitment, especially our international programme, as we move through Brexit?

Yes, of course, they are all important, but they will all fail without an excellent backbone of alumni relations underpinning these activities. Grand claims? You’ve heard this before? Well, please let me explain (and yes, this does all tie in with the General Data Protection Regulation).

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is coming into effect 25 May 2018, and companies are urged to “get ready” for it. As per my previous blog, little information is currently available for charities (which are being distracted by the Fundraising Preference Service [FPS] and changes to the Charities Act 2016). Even less information is available for universities and schools that are actively engaged in alumni relations, and many are unaware how greatly the GDPR is going to affect them. Let’s not beat around the bush – the effect is going to be huge if you cannot continue to interact with your alumni, and also potentially very expensive. Some are likening the investment required to that required to fix the Y2K bug back in the late 1990s, and that’s on top of any investment you have to make to be compliant with the FPS.

OK, so implementing GDPR and FPS is going to be expensive. At least everyone is going to give their consent to being contacted by you, because we all know that alumni love their institution.

How about when alumni realise that: “Oh, they are asking me whether I’ll give my consent to being fundraised from. Hang on, they also want me to give them my permission to work out how wealthy I am.” How many people are going to consent to that?

Of course, the exact wording of your Privacy Policy will play an important part in getting people to give you their consent (be aware that consent must be freely given, specific, and informed), but at the same time, your alumni are not stupid and they will see through spin. But, given the choice, why would people consent to all of this to allow you to continue fundraising from them?

The answer lies in Alumni Relations. In these uncertain times, alumni are a powerful body that can help spread the importance of your organisation and your message (see Susie Hill’s blog: Brexit + Trump = Time for turbo-charged alumni relations), beyond just being targeted for fundraising. This message of importance, illustrating the fact that they are special and valued, needs to be communicated carefully. We often say that alumni are members of your institution “for life”. They are, in effect, your membership.

Maybe, now is the time to really make your alumni feel that they are a part of a truly unique and exclusive membership organisation. Maybe, now is the time to start investing in a proper alumni relations programme that engages and shows a clear benefit to its members.

The key word here is “membership”. People become members of an organisation because they see value in doing so. Sometimes people become members because they want to be associated with a name. However, alumni will always have their qualifications, so they are already associated by name. Only by clearly and actively articulating to your members what the value or benefit is to them will you encourage your alumni to provide the consent you need. If you can’t offer them anything that they want, why would they join up?

So, what is your Alumni Relations programme worth to you? Failing to invest now will lead to your active alumni pool being vastly reduced. Hopefully, you will convince those already highly engaged alumni and donors to give you their consent, and maybe that is enough to help you. After all, your major donors have provided you with the majority of your fundraising income. They could also be vocal ambassadors. But you will lose the ability to show mass support – so vital when convincing others that your cause/school/university is worth supporting. Once you have lost contact with the majority of your alumni, it will be difficult to reconnect later. They would have to approach you, since you can’t make contact with them. Can you afford that?

At this stage, you may be thinking that if this is going to cost money, you could start charging for membership. You could, but there are two points to consider. The membership programme would have to be worth paying for and it may affect your fundraising programme, too. Alumni may see paying their membership fee as “doing their bit,” and they don’t need to support you philanthropically, too. It’s the reason why many alumni association membership fees were abolished in the first place.

So, while getting the consent you need should be your priority going forward, this is best achieved by making alumni relations your number one priority. If you don’t invest now, your pool of supporters will dwindle very rapidly, and if you ignore GDPR, you’re likely to be faced with a big fine. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be tough on any reported breaches of GDPR.

– Christian Propper, Senior Consultant

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