One of the biggest challenges facing alumni relations pros is attracting new participants to existing engagement programs with no new resources. More often than not, the approach requires turning our attention to marketing tactics — email communication strategy in particular, in an attempt to increase turnout.

Accordingly, most of us circle back to our constituent data and its accuracy. Since email is our primary marketing tool, we’re constantly struggling with the problem of alumni database relevancy. What I mean by “relevancy” is that we ask alumni to update their contact information in our outward-facing databases so that they’ll receive our communications or can be contacted by classmates. As an industry, we’ve failed to react in a substantial way to the reality that tools like Linkedin’s University Pages with its searchable alumni component have vastly decreased the rationale for alumni to update our constituent management tools with current contact information.

In fact, it’s probably fair to say the only reason for an alumnae to update her contact information in our database is when she wants to receive university communications and isn’t already. Finding and connecting with a fellow classmate or being accurately listed so as to be found is not only easier on Linkedin, the data listed there is much more likely to be current because it is the prevailing tool for digital networking and personal branding.

Our relentless focus on constituent data and its accuracy assumes that alumni will engage with their alma mater if they were only aware of the existence of an upcoming reunion or the presence of a local networking group.

We spend an extraordinary amount of time worrying about the data we don’t have rather than considering what changes we could make to our existing programs in order to make them more attractive to the alumni, parent and friends with whom we do have accurate contact information.

I understand that large scale alumni engagement program changes would be very difficult to pull off, but have we really tried all the angles to foster growth with our existing resources? Me thinks not.

What if the $150K budget for an annual reunions weekend was reallocated in such a way that it could engage 3-4 times the number of alums and still provide a robust fundraising component if it was used towards the creation and deployment of another suite of programs. Even if the results were incredible from a new participant standpoint, could an institution really ax a reunions program? The prevailing paradigm is that we all have to have one.

What if instead of sending faculty all over the world in order to discuss their research we focused on events featuring alumni thought leaders. Would they draw more registrations?

If we spent an equal amount of money fostering digital engagement as we do underwriting networking events, would we see far more new participants? I think so…

I think us alumni engagement folks are getting a bit complacent in the realm of innovation given the diminishing utility of our core strategy; our outward facing alumni databases are no longer as relevant to our constituents, and there’s no reason to think that will change soon as Linkedin continues to innovate. We have to keep and promote our alumni databases as an exclusive tool because we still must have an avenue to collect and modify contact information.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to think twice as hard about our data collection methods. But given that our existing alumni databases are part of the value-add we’re offering for alumni as a reason to participate and function as our primary biographic data collection tool as well, we need to be hugely mindful of diminishing returns. A look towards program innovation might help foster growth while we rethink our alumni database relevancy.

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia and Co-Host of “Advancement Live.” You can follow him on twitter @RyanCatherwood and connect on Linkedin.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


Ryan Catherwood

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