Adapted from a talk I delivered to CASE District VII in San Francisco on March 1, 2013, titled
"What is Alumni Relations For?"
What are universities for?
I recently read a thoughtful (and at times, funny) book called What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini. Collini, a professor of intellectual history at Cambridge University, describes how politicians and a "morose, prickly" mythical creature called "the taxpayer" are challenging universities to justify their existence in economic terms. And as we see in the media, critics are calling for more "accountability" by universities regarding the needs of the communities which they serve. They say we can assess this by tracking things such as
* jobs created
* graduates being hired
* companies founded by faculty members, and
* technologies commercialized by the institution.
But as Collini points out, economic growth is not the sole (or even primary) way in which a community benefits from having such an institution in its midst. To measure education – and humanities in particular – in this way is to apply standards ill-suited to the task.
Collini's essay about what universities are for prompted me to wonder, "what is alumni relations for?" In a way, alumni relations is similar to the humanities. Like the humanities, alumni relations is under scrutiny. Every dollar invested, every staff hour worked, every event, is being assessed to see whether it is generating something called "engagement."
[Engagement is to alumni relations what
economic output is to the humanities]
Advancement VPs, budget managers, and development directors are wondering whether alumni relations is contributing directly to fundraising, and many of us are indexing "engagement outcomes" in search of an answer.
Just as economic measures are ill suited to assessing the "effectiveness" of the humanities, assessing alumni relations primarily according to fundraising outcomes is misplaced. And it ignores a fundamental aspect of alumni relations: the fact that it's largely about relationships.
How do we measure relationships?
We don't generally quantify how we feel about others or what we "get" from having a relationship with them. We don't assign a numerical outcome to interactions with a spouse, a close friend, or a family member. Nor do we keep a record of weighted "engagement opportunities" with family members and acquaintances.
Why don't we quantify the relationships that matter to us? Because we measure their value based on how we feel, not on a scorecard created by a committee. And things that are based on feelings can't be measured. As Collini points out, they can only be judged.
The engagement craze
And yet, increasingly, we're trying to measure alumni relationships instead of judging them based on our goals and experiences. We have created engagement scoring schemes that quantify intangibles. How much time and effort are alumni relations professionals spending collecting, curating, and computerizing "engagement activities"? How much time should they be spending?
Critics will say, "But Andy, a relationship isn't a business. Universities are businesses. We have to apply business practices to manage them effectively and to maximize return on investment."
Schools, colleges, and universities exhibit business-like characteristics in some areas, and we can choose metrics to assess our progress toward some goals. But historically we've treated alumni relationships like a liberal art, not like a science. So if we assess alumni relations on a numerical scale, we have to change the way we design it and practice it. And we have to reassess its purposes.
Alumni relations needs a methodology
Regardless of its stated purpose in a given institution, alumni relations needs a methodology. We need tools that describe our profession, that help us assess our work, and allow us to talk about it with colleagues from other institutions. But what methodology should we choose? A subjective one based on judgment? Or a more numerical one, based on metrics?
Alumni relations operates today on a continuum, with no data at one end and nothing but data at the other end.
We could operate without data, judging our work by whether people "seemed happy" when they left an event, and by calling ourselves "friendraisers." I don't suggest we do that.
At the other extreme, we could assign weighted values to things we define as engagement, put them into a database and try to prove exactly how engaged someone is. As you've guessed, I feel that this prevents us from exercising the judgment we need to wield.
A hybrid solution
Instead, we should combine these methods, as some already do. We can find a comfortable spot somewhere in the middle. We can use less measurement and more judgment. We can track data and correlate alumni relations to giving-related outcomes.
And we can find activities that support fundraising directly. A simple example: Work with development research staff to scan the LinkedIn profiles of alumni who join your official group. Flag likely candidates for research, based on job titles and keywords, and track how many become prospects and donors (hat tip to Cornell's Andrew Gossen).
Alumni executives should regularly set aside the engagement scorecard long enough to get a feel for their alumni family. Because that's what people who are nurturing relationships do. They feel.
And based on how they feel, they decide what's important. To achieve what's important, they can check the numbers for guidance in taking the next step forward. And then see how that feels, and continue the process.
It's not a scientific method, but it can still reflect intellectual and professional rigor.
A simple equation to help us
In that vein, Collini suggests a simple way for scholars to assess each others' work in the humanities:
Experience + Reflection = Understanding
This is a proxy for metrics in a field - the humanities - where progress may be impossible to characterize with numbers. Wouldn't this be useful to alumni relations professionals too?
Experience the interactions students and alumni have with each other, and with the institution.
Reflect on how these interactions matter, based on your goals.
Understand what you see, what you hear, and what you feel, using your experience and reflection as the foundation.
[Collini: "Experience + Reflection = Understanding."
Is this a useful approach for alumni relations?]
A fork in the road
My views are somewhat of a backlash against the current hunger for engagement metrics. We're at a fork in the road: Do we need more measurement, or more trust in our professional judgment?
It's not an either/or choice. We should measure what we reasonably can, even when it's difficult. But we mustn't lose sight of the human aspect of what we do.
§ § §
Agree or disagree with my viewpoint? Do we need more measurement? Or something else? Leave a comment.