Why Alumni Relations Needs a Typology

Defining alumni relations can help us articulate our purpose–and help us understand whether we are fulfilling it.


What do we mean when we talk about “alumni engagement”?

J. Thomas  Forbes, Chief Executive Officer of Alumni Relations at Indiana University and President of the Council of Alumni Association Executives (CAAE) has spent more than a year grappling with that question, working with other members of CAAE toward a common definition of alumni relations.

The end goal? To establish a shared language around engagement.

Why do this?

“Alumni relations might be the most elusive area of advancement,” writes Forbes in the October 2015 issue of CASE Currents magazine (see “A Categorical Decision”—registration required). “We are constantly developing metrics to show our impact. Misconceptions exist about what we do, both on campus and outside the organization. Even alumni relations practitioners debate priorities and job functions.”

Building a Typology for Alumni Engagement

Simply put, a definition and typology for alumni engagement will help alumni relations practitioners articulate our purpose and whether we are fulfilling it.

Once the domains of alumni engagement are laid out, we can use a typology to assess how different advancement teams deploy the various activities that comprise alumni engagement. For instance, what percentage of our effort is devoted to:

+ Volunteer management?
+ Clubs and chapters?
+ Alumni career services?

Does a particular distribution of effort or a consistent set of priorities lead to more success? Do they correlate to organization type or scale?

Defining the Framework

In his Currents article, Forbes shares ten domains that he and his team at Indiana University have organized to define alumni engagement. Those definitions can apply to a variety of institutions regardless of size, culture, location, or structure. They include:

Academic engagement; alumni outreach; career development; diversity and multiculturalism; lifelong learning; philanthropy; spirit, pride, and tradition; student and recent graduate leadership development; student recruitment; and university advocacy.

Forbes has also provided working definitions for each of these domains. As alumni professionals continue fine-tuning the descriptions of each—as well as adding others—I propose that alumni relations practitioners should also consider:

How do we define “engagement”?—To study and classify something, we must agree on what it is. At the very least, we should address active versus passive engagement. An alumnus might feel engaged merely by reading the alumni magazine and following his alma mater on Twitter. Yet according to most definitions, this person isn’t engaged unless he attends an event, volunteers or makes a donation. Are we under-estimating the extent of alumni engagement?

Profession-wide trends are cyclical—New waves of interest wash over the profession until people are accustomed to hearing about something. After a few conference keynotes and a CASE Currents cover story, we shift our attention to a new topic. We should make rapid progress on this particular challenge before practitioners tire of hearing about it!

 Advancement will resist “classification”—Although a typology can be useful across institutions, there will be multiple versions of the definitions, for different markets, advancement cultures, and types of institutions. Advancement relies on human behavior, which defies global, standardized models.

We should not rely entirely on predictive models—Alumni relations professionals can increase our overall effectiveness by using analytics and data mining. But decisions about how to engage a particular volunteer, or when to ask for a large gift, depend more on our human understanding of an individual’s motivation than on a quantitative analysis of “people who are like that person.”  In my personal experience, data-driven suggestion engines (like those that Amazon or Netflix use) lack nuance and insight. They can also short-circuit serendipity, preventing us from exploring unconventional solutions and choices.

Innovation helps and hinders classification—Our society is obsessed with fostering a culture of innovation. And every new tool that helps us solve a problem also makes new outcomes possible. We will need to update our typology continually, to account for newly-desired outcomes and newly-created problems.

Today’s financially constrained and increasingly business-like advancement environment means we are ever more focused on return on investment. I agree that we will benefit eventually from a more systematic and consistent approach to our profession. By itself, a definition and typology for alumni engagement can’t solve our dilemmas. But it will help us articulate more effectively – especially to those elsewhere in the institution – what our purpose is, and how we know whether we are fulfilling it.


An earlier version of this post was published on http://alumnifutures.com/.

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