Take a peek at Yale’s alumni relations successes from the past year, and learn some interesting trends and approaches. Among them: Reunions today are more vibrant than ever, setting new records in 2015 for overall attendance. More than 7,000 graduates, family, and friends returned for Yale College reunions in the spring of 2015.
The Guardian’s Higher Education Network offers this great article on communicating with alumni. The bottom line: “You’re up against Twitter, text messages and diminishing attention spans, so make it snappy (and not about strategic plans).”
The University of Missouri’s alumni association has re-instituted its Black Alumni Network in response to numerous requests made in the weeks after racial tensions exploded on the school’s campus.
Corporate Insights recently reported that although nearly eight in ten alumni “feel positively” about their alma mater, only 22% have donated to their college or university in the last year. The report explored characteristics of donors vs. non-donors, and a key finding was that eighty percent of alumni donors indicated they have benefitted from their association with their alma mater. Among others, this finding underscores the new framework for alumni engagement: providing lifelong value for lifelong loyalty.
This month’s news roundup reflects the ongoing juxtaposition of tradition and innovation in alumni engagement. We’re seeing reunions integrate rich, new programming with long-standing offerings, associations adapt their membership programs, and the addition of a philanthropy component to one of the biggest alumni parties of the year. Read on!
In a time when alumni associations are being “folded in” to university development offices (UConn, for a recent example), Iowa State has just endowed its association’s President and CEO position, the first non-academic endowed position of any kind at ISU.
The MSU Alumni Association joins other alumni organizations like those at Ohio State, Illinois, and the University at Buffalo in dropping its dues-based membership program. “As of July 1, 2016 the MSU Alumni Association will eliminate the dues requirement for membership in recognition of what many alumni have been telling us for a long time – dues are a distraction,” wrote Scott Westerman, Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations.
The University of Pennsylvania’s alumni weekend drew a record number of alumni back to campus for a weekend packed with educational programs, an All-Alumni Party, parade, picnic, the Taste of Penn Spectrum (celebrating Penn’s cultural diversity), a screening of Pitch-Perfect 2 (which features a Penn a cappella group), and the Perelman School of Medicine’s black-tie gala featuring Harry Connick, Jr.
In addition, the school’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships links alumni with volunteer opportunities, following a request from alumni who “wanted another reason to exist besides to plan a party every five years.”
Up to 5,000 alumni will attend the University of Delaware’s annual Dela-bration, an open-air dance party with such high energy it required a city noise waiver. This well-attended event will include a VIP area near the stage, exclusively for alum that donate at least $1,000 per year.
Thoughtful Experiment: HarvardX for Alumni Rethinks Engagement in the MOOC Era
In the spring of 2014, Harvard launched HarvardX for Alumni, an initiative to create a unique online experience exclusively for alumni. Almost a year later, leaders from the Harvard Alumni Association took a close look at the successes and challenges of its first iteration.
Engaging nearly 15,000 alumni, the program drew mixed reviews but shows promise, especially as a way to engage local chapters and clubs. In their summary article, the program’s leaders wrote that “twenty-eight Harvard Clubs hosted, or pledged to host, a discussion group on a HarvardX for Alumni topic or segment. A number of Clubs, including Houston, Minnesota, Shanghai, Chicago, and Cape Cod, hosted more than one discussion. Five Clubs also brought in faculty speakers from the program.”
In the fall of 2014, the University of Pennsylvania launched its own alumni-exclusive online course via Coursera. In contrast to Harvard’s program, Penn offered just one course, a modified version of its popular online class “History of the Slave South.” Drawing nearly 700 alumni, the course garnered positive feedback, with over 85% of participants indicating that the course strengthened their connection to the university.
In both cases, one of the best outcomes of the programs seems to be the support it lends to connecting alumni with each other, acting as a vehicle for local alumni groups to gather and engage.
Are alumni-exclusive online courses for you? Before launching a new initiative, answer 3 questions:
1) How does this type of programming support or align with your current strategic goals?
If you can’t come up with a good answer, just don’t go there. Getting distracted by the latest programming idea is a sure way to derail your success.
2) Will this resonate with your alumni?
Hopefully, you have an effective alumni council or advisory body that is informing your programming and engagement methods. Before launching, vet this idea with the appropriate committee or council members and explore the level of interest and commitment. As with any successful venture, you need buy-in from your lead volunteers to champion the program and move it forward.
3) What resources can you deploy toward this effort?
If the program aligns with your goals and has buy-in from your leaders, craft a plan for the program that aligns with your resources, including the staff, funding, skills, and expertise needed to deliver a quality program. Find a champion among your staff team to lead the effort and collaborate with your key partners across campus.
As you move forward, define your objectives, understand how you will measure success, and, like Harvard and Penn, take time to evaluate your progress.
Social Media + Analytics for Alumni Engagement
The New York Times recently profiled EverTrue and Graduway, two start-ups that use social media analytics to help colleges and universities discern the giving preferences and likelihood of their alumni. While the approaches may be controversial, some institutions are jumping on board. In a related blog post, the Times also featured the increased use of LinkedIn’s University Pages to drive alumni career services.
Alumni Give Nearly $10 Billion in FY 2014
Alumni made 26% of all contributions to colleges and universities in FY2014, according to the latest Voluntary Support of Education Survey. With an increase of nearly 10% since 2013, alumni were the second largest source of contributions, just behind foundations, which gave 30%.
Image: Harvard Alumni Association website.
I recently had a stunning customer service experience. After finishing my purchase, the cashier asked if I was aware of a special discount that I could have applied to my purchase. When I replied that I didn’t know about said offer, she quickly (and happily) processed the offer and issued me a refund of 25% savings! I walked away a highly satisfied customer, with soaring affinity for this retailer.
This experience started me thinking about the role of customer service in alumni engagement. In an age of increasing levels of consumer expectations, alumni organizations need to be attentive to alumni expectations while delivering on our service to the institution. In our high-touch field, alumni professionals are uniquely positioned to build affinity for our colleges and universities through stellar customer service, which strengthens our institutions’ brands.
What are the consequences of poor customer service? An unreturned phone call, a confusing website, or a poor experience at an event will decrease affinity, and others will hear about it. Studies show that after a poor customer service experience, 26% of consumers will post a negative comment via their social networks. Alumni with degrees from other institutions or with children enrolled at other schools may choose to support the alma mater that has given them the best alumni experience. And while not all alumni have the option to take their “business” to a competitor, there are plenty of opportunities for alumni to invest their time and resources elsewhere.
So, taking a cue from my friendly cashier, what opportunities do we have to build pride and spirit in our institution through our service to alumni?
KISSmetrics compiled a fantastic infographic on why companies with great customer service succeed.
Friendly employees, easy-to-find information/help, and personalized experiences top the list. In alumni engagement, these translate into the day-to-day interactions alumni have with our organizations, including:
- User-friendly websites. How easy to navigate is your alumni organization’s website? Does it have an up-to-date look and feel? Is staff contact information easy to find? A great example is the University of Virginia Alumni Association’s site, which won a CASE District III award after a redesign last year.
- Easy access to live support. When alumni call your office for help, do they reach someone who can really handle their request? Or do they get shuffled around to various departments? Many organizations are now providing a central email and phone number for an alumni “help desk” that can address any request, even across departments (development, admissions, or alumni relations). Having the right team member working the “help desk” is key to this approach. An engaging, dedicated problem solver will bring more to the customer service experience than someone who will only route calls.
- Seamless logistics at events. When alumni approach your event site, are parking options clear? Do attendees have to search for the registration line? How are personal touches added to the experience? Walking through the event experience from beginning to end with a few colleagues can help resolve trouble spots ahead of time.
Beyond the day-to-day interactions, our organizations and staff need to be empowered to meet alumni expectations.
- Do we know what alumni expect? The ever-popular alumni attitude/perceptions survey is one way to gather this information. What programs and services are most requested? Beyond those specifics, what are alumni expectations of the organization as a whole? Take advantage of some of your most engaged stakeholders by seeking input from volunteers and board members. But remember, don’t ask for alumni input if you don’t intend to follow through on their feedback.
- Are our front-line staff members empowered to deliver quality customer service? Are support staff members empowered to quickly resolve complaints? Or do they need permission to issue refunds or make a special arrangement to win over a dissatisfied alumnus? Ritz Carlton set a gold standard in empowering front-line staff when management authorized every hotel employee to spend up to $2,000 per incident, without approval from a general manager, to not only resolve issues but create an outstanding guest experience. Zappos is well-known for their unorthodox methods of going far beyond expectations to make customers not just happy, but ecstatic.
Lastly, the greatest opportunity to influence a culture of stellar customer service is through our organizational leadership. Alumni executives and directors can set the right tone of appreciation for and service to the alumni community in how they talk about the alumni body, and in particular, alumni volunteers. Further, recognizing the good efforts of program and support staff will reinforce and affirm the value of service. Staff respond as they are appreciated for their contribution to a culture of quality service to alumni that builds great brand affinity for the college or university.
As former Ritz Carlton CEO Simon Cooper noted, “If leadership doesn’t live the values that it requires of the organization, that is the swiftest way to undermine the culture. No culture sticks if it’s not lived at the highest levels of the organization.”
We’d love to hear how your organization is integrating a culture of service in your engagement. Post your comments below, or send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jamie Hunte is a member of the alumni engagement practice at Bentz Whaley Flessner, where she helps colleges and universities build and grow strong alumni engagement programs. For help with building alumni affinity at your school, contact Jamie here.
Photo credit: KISSmetrics, http://blog.kissmetrics.com/great-customer-service-infographic/?wide=1
The academic year is in full swing, and with all your alumni events, board meetings, and much more, you might be experiencing some stress.
In the video below, BWF’s Jamie Hunte offers her favorite tips for staying energized and focused through the year.
What are you doing to beat the stress and keep your alumni program operating at top quality? Email us your ideas at email@example.com or comment below.