Successful Alumni Relations: The More the Merrier?

May 3, 2016

With much talk this week about the publication of the latest Ross-CASE benchmarking report, I figured it was time to redress the balance and share some thoughts on the International CASE Alumni Relations Survey (ICARS), which was also published on Tuesday. For those unfamiliar, ICARS focusses on three key measures of ‘success’: number of event attendees, number of volunteers, and number of donors.

In its current iteration, ICARS therefore gives much weight to mass participation, with no objective measures on the quality or impact of individual engagement opportunities. Whilst CASE recognises this imbalance and is already undertaking consultations across the sector to address it, this admission led me to consider how it may be difficult for institutions to get the ‘right’ answers from ICARS when half of the picture is missing:

  1. Methods of Communication

The completeness of email addresses is strongly correlated with both event attendees and volunteers. This could result in Alumni Relations programmes focussing less on the collection and maintenance of postal and telephone numbers, which would not only impact the work of their fundraising colleagues (think telethons and prospect research), but also make it more difficult to target event and volunteer communications by country/city. By all means, focus on expanding digital communication and engagement, but make sure you also seek to raise awareness of the importance of keeping ‘snail mail’ information updated.

  1. Staffing

Alumni Relations staffing has increased by 10.3% across the sector, but most senior management teams will question the sustainability of this if the sector continues to see an annual increase of 11.54% contactable and living alumni. Instead, let’s explore the difference between start-up programmes (with a median of 0.48FTE per 10,000 constituents) and mature programmes (0.35FTE per 10,000 alumni). If these mature programmes can also be shown to continually increase the impact of their engagement, the key will be to see how they used mass engagement in the early days to best identify the skills and areas their teams would need to focus on to facilitate the best partnership between alumni skills and institutional needs.

  1. Events

ICARS concludes that ‘instead of increasing the size of the same existing events, you need to have sufficient staff and budget to put on more events’. Yet considered in silo, this may not best serve your institution’s objectives and goals. If, for example, your mentoring programme has a demonstrated track record on supporting students and demand for mentors from the business world is currently difficult to meet, it may make sense to work on increasing attendees at an existing professional development event before launching a speaker series on the arts.

Most Development Directors will be familiar with the need to balance both number of donors (participation) with the total amount raised. Isn’t it time we started considering the same question of alumni relations?  How should a programme balance the need to react to new possibilities from within the widest possible network, whilst also meeting the strategic needs of an institution?

At the risk of ‘analysis paralysis’, what else do you feel Alumni Relations benchmarking needs in order to provide institutions with the ‘full picture’ needed to recognise their progress and guide their continual improvement? Perhaps a truly international survey would enable comparisons by country. ICARS showed no correlations between engagement and range of benefits offered, but does this stand true for US institutions, and how could an international comparison guide engagement with alumni outside of your institution’s home country? Or does benchmarking need to consider the wider institution? For example, can you mark your volunteer programme as being successful if colleagues in student recruitment are failing to meet targets, and your graduate employment is in decline?

-Victoria Barthram, Senior Consultant

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