One vigorous discussion at a recent meeting of the CASE Commission on Alumni Relations was about alumni organizations trying to be "all things to all people." The consensus was that, historically, alumni associations have tried to gather the greatest number of alumni possible under one large programming tent. And for a long time, that worked.
I have spoken to many professionals recently who say that alumni shops must assert their tangible support for institutional priorities (such as fundraising), and that this need is changing how alumni offices identify and engage their target audience. American University's Tom Minar addresses this topic with great clarity in this month's CURRENTS magazine (login required). I share Minar's profound dislike of the term friendraising when applied to alumni relations, and he articulates his thinking on this topic very well.
Instead of programming for a mythical "average alumnus" who is interested in most of the institution's engagement opportunities, alumni professionals are focusing more narrowly on two groups: the tiny fraction of alumni who are already loyal members, donors and volunteers, and the larger, more fickle group of alumni who are willing to engage with alma mater, but only if they see opportunities that speak to their personal and professional needs.
With this conversation fresh in my mind following the Commission meeting, I read a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine on the flight home. In the September 6, 2010 issue I found James Surowiecki's article, "Are You Being Served?" And in it I read:
[Businesses] carefully monitor call centers to see how long calls last, how long workers are sitting at their desks, and so on. But none of this has much to do with actually helping customers, so companies end up thinking that their efforts are adding up to a much better job than they really do. In a recent survey of more than three hundred big companies a few years ago, eighty per cent described themselves as delivering 'superior' service, but consumers put that figure at just eight per cent.
Think of this in terms of your alumni outreach – membership marketing, event invitations, and e-mail newsletters for example. Do you think you're providing alumni with interesting content that's relevant to them? How big a gap do you think there is between your assessment of your effectiveness, and what alumni would say about it if asked?
The problem, Surowiecki continues, is that companies don't focus on engaged audience members, and that
they're always more interested in the customers they don't have...The consultant Lior Arussy calls this the 'efficient relationship paradox': it's only once you've actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company's current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service.
Alumni relations may not be this far out of alignment, but there has long been anxiety about getting the extra few per cent of alumni to attend a regional event, to give to the annual fund, and to pay association dues. And every minute spent trying to gain a new customer is a minute spent ignoring the needs and interests of someone who has already self-identified as an engaged, interested graduate.
As pressure steadily increases to show that alumni activities are aligned with institutional needs, alumni organizations will be prudent to shift some of their attention from courting the marginally interested and the outright uninterested, and to spend it instead on serving those who are already demonstrating their commitment to alma mater.
Video: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in conversation with Lisa Napoli. He discusses the "call center" phenomenon briefly at the 0:17:00 mark, and talks about the long-term nature of returns on customer-service investments at 0:25:00. If you have time, the whole discussion of running a customer-focused business is interesting. The full video is one hour and two minutes long.
Thank you to my wife Martha for making me aware of this video.