The number of financially independent, separately incorporated alumni associations has steadily decreased over recent decades. The reasons are many: declining membership among more recent alumni, financial pressures, waning affinity partnership revenues, lateral competition from other nonprofits, and generational changes in attitudes toward organizations. Many of these independent alumni organizations have integrated their work with their institution’s fundraising foundation.
Meanwhile, already integrated advancement teams (like those typically found in private institutions such as liberal arts colleges) have also seen alumni relations teams move toward increased partnership with their fundraising colleagues. It’s common these days for alumni offices to participate openly and fully in capital campaigns, “Day of Giving” events, and crowdfunding efforts.
With all these changes taking place, it’s a good time to ask a few key questions.
What drives increased integration, alignment, and collaboration?
There are three primary drivers of closer ties or formal integration between alumni relations professionals and their development colleagues: organic change, a desire for greater effectiveness, and a desire for greater efficiency.
- Organic change
- Each party believes that the strategic benefits of integration outweigh the short-term transition costs. They recognize that mission, mechanisms, and audience largely overlap between the two organizations.
- Desire for greater effectiveness
- Available metrics show whether the association is achieving measurable goals and provide insight into the best path forward. More than ever, institutional leaders expect proof of results from alumni communities.
- Desire for greater efficiency
- Organizations can contain costs by consolidating backbone business functions (e.g., human resources, facilities management, IT, finance). This is especially true for the “independent association plus institutional foundation” model.
For dependent alumni shops, there is a strong inclination to maintain a standalone alumni relations team that is not highly integrated with staff from events, communications or fundraising. This model has held sway for more than a century, but recent financial pressures and an increasingly businesslike approach to advancement management (and higher education leadership in general) is pressuring alumni directors to quantify, measure, and report their contributions to institutional success. This in turn drives increased interest in metrics that show how alumni engagement affects other endeavors, such as giving.
Is there a “best” model or preferred process?
Integration models range from complete financial independence (with fewer than a dozen such programs left today) all the way to total integration as a single 501(c)(3) organization, or as a fully integrated advancement shop with alumni relations funded and staffed by the institution. This latter model has been common in North America for a long time.
- No one model is best, and the choice depends on many factors, including scale, program maturity, institutional leadership, board alignment, corporate culture, financial structure, staff and budget, governance issues, and intended outcomes.
- Regardless of model, any change requires ownership and buy in from both alumni relations and from development – staff and volunteers alike. This is especially true with identifiably separate organizations, such as an alumni association with its own endowment, or significant income from dues.
How – and how soon – can we gauge success?
Measurable success of an integrated model is a long-term proposition. Tangible short term benefits of integration include cost savings (such as eliminating or combining positions) and more efficiency (quicker decision-making, for example). But longer term, strategic value takes time to surface. Why?
- Culture changes gradually. Culture derives in part from leadership, and leadership doesn’t involve “flipping a switch” to enact behavioral changes in staff and volunteers. Rather, it involves articulating a vision for longer term outcomes, modeling the actions that will lead to those outcomes, and making incremental adjustments over time, resulting in enduring cultural shifts.
- ROI is measured over time. Most alumni professionals are still measuring inputs, counting things such as the number of events, attendees, volunteers, and social media “likes” and followers. Fundraising goals tend to be more quantifiable and oriented toward measuring outcomes whose correlates are understood and reported. Alumni organizations must show how specific inputs correlate with measurable outcomes, and – like culture change – this takes time. Without these insights, it will be hard for alumni teams to quantify ROI as effectively as their fundraising counterparts.
- Identifying behavioral correlations takes time. We want to see which behaviors correspond to desired outcomes, such as a relationship between event attendance and giving, or membership and volunteerism. These engagement pathways will illuminate where to invest time, effort, and budget.
- Most alumni programming remains events-driven. This can make alumni outreach more tactical and less strategic.
- Compared with alumni relations, fundraising’s focus aligns more explicitly with institutional priorities, which are high-level, unchanging in the short-term, and consistent with leadership’s vision.
- Alumni professionals should ensure that institutional priorities and messaging are built in to their communications and activities. But leaders must also understand that if alumni feel the conversation is only about alma mater, and not about alumni needs and interests, alumni will engage and donate elsewhere. It may be tempting to ensure that “our message gets out,” but that ignores audience expectations and could backfire eventually.
- So what does the audience expect? Survey data and anecdotal information consistently show that students, alumni and parents think your institution’s most important role is to prepare students for the job market, and help them find employment. But the same research says that satisfaction with student and alumni career support is very low.
- Any realignment of alumni functions must also account for the evolution of not only alumni relations and fundraising, but of career support as well. This suggests a closer alignment between alumni engagement and career services, both structurally and in terms of interaction and joint planning.
Due to the pressures and expectations I outline above, we may see a trend toward alumni functions being distributed among other administrative units. Some alumni professionals will be shocked by the dispersal of programs with long histories and loyal supporters. But combining alumni offices with development should not be of concern merely because it represents change. Many institutions need to change. But that change must account for what alumni really need, and how the institution can best deliver it.