This is the first of three articles that I have adapted from my remarks as the alumni relations keynote speaker at CASE V in Chicago, in December 2013. The title of my talk there was Alumni Relations & Advancement's Future: 3 Questions.
For part II of this series see my article about the changing student experience and its effect on alumni relations. Part III is about predicting the future of alumni relations.
In 2013, we celebrated the centennial of alumni relations as an organized profession. While the profession has evolved extensively over the last century, we still work with our predecessors' original goals in mind: forging and nurturing meaningful bonds between alumni and alma mater.
The first 85 years of organized alumni relations (from about 1913 to 1998) was stable, with mostly incremental change. But the last 15 years have been revolutionary. The rapid rate of change in our profession suggests that the alumni office of 100 years from now – if alumni programming exists at all – would be virtually unrecognizable to us.
Recent changes fall into two interdependent categories: technological change and human (social) change. First, digital communication, online social networks, and powerful search continue to have enormous impact. Directories, event management, research, and fundraising have all changed dramatically in the last decade, thanks mostly to the effect of new tools.
But it's not only technology that has changed our profession. Alumni and students also have evolving attitudes toward the role of organizations. (Andrew Careaga mentioned this recently - see topic #1 in this recent blog post.) Author Clay Shirky says that when it comes to many organizations, "What was once a service has become a bottleneck" from members' viewpoints.
With this in mind, I offer the first of three questions for alumni professionals to ask themselves and each other. Discussing and answering these questions will help us prepare for our graduates' and our institutions' future needs:
What will the relationship be between
alumni relations and fundraising in the future?
A few alumni relations traditionalists still maintain that they are "friendraisers," not "fundraisers." But things have changed.
In alumni relations, we are certainly in the relationship business – if it can be called a business. It's even in the name of our profession. And we talk a lot about our institutions' community, history, and current needs, the projects we're funding, the students we're supporting, and the buildings we're building.
But organizations can't just "tell stories" about projects. More than ever, we need to focus on our cause, not our activities. But our cause isn't always clear. Education? Research? Not as clear as other causes that mobilize broad support. Think about political campaigns. However you feel about the tenor of political rhetoric these days, election campaigns achieve enormous fundraising results from the public at large. And it's not because of proposed legislation – it's because parties and their candidates seem to many to stand for ideals and ideas.
For a university, it's the difference between describing a laboratory building versus describing the world-changing research that will take place inside that building. It's the old sales truism: "Don't describe the features, describe the benefits."
The passion that drives support for big ideas can be difficult for us to channel. We're so accustomed to describing our organizations that it's difficult for us to talk about the effect our organizations have on the world. Done right, educational fundraising is not in the service of an organization. It's in the service of an ideal that is broadly shared across a vast swath of our audience. That focus, that dream, that message about what really matters – it can no longer be conveyed with a mass mailing and an appeal code.
That passion comes from the heart, not from the Office of Donor Relations.
[What really matters can no longer be conveyed
with a mass solicitation and an appeal code]
We do try hard to be sincere, to tell genuine stories that matter, and often we succeed. But increasingly, we are talking to strangers. We have an audience that we invite to events, but maybe 5% of them actually turn up in the course of a year. And if 20% of our alumni were donors last year, then 80% may not really know us. They aren't paying attention to our needs, and in our appeals they don't recognize a relevant cause. So, many of them are out of touch. Disengaged.
Their commitment to our cause pales in comparison to a family member's commitment to a niece or nephew's personal pursuit. Passion drives support, which helps make the crowdfunding movement so powerful. And nothing invokes passion quite like a cause. Think about political campaign advertisements that have angered you; human rights movements that expose shocking abuses; and social justice efforts that succeeded because they stopped at nothing short of obtaining what is right for people who have been wronged. True causes, the kind that inspire passion, drive people to give up their day jobs, to protest until they get arrested, even to lay down their lives.
For or better or worse, nobody ever went to jail or died trying to get the annual fund participation rate to 30%.
So where might alumni relations and fundraising cross paths most effectively in the short run?
The most obvious place for alumni relations and development to combine efforts is in annual giving. Alumni officers and annual giving staff are talking to the same audiences: students, their parents, and alumni. Why put a generous donor on hold while you transfer their call to the development office, because you aren't sure about how to handle a year-end gift?
[Friendraising is dead]
Furthermore, we have long given alumni the impression that asking graduates for donations is the institution's sole (or at least primary) purpose. Many alumni assume that the envelope or email from the alumni association is a fundraising solicitation. And we reinforce the delicacy of asking for donations by relying on euphemisms, "development" and "advancement" being the most common ones.
We need alumni to understand that their financial support is critical, but we also need our institutional leaders to understand the value alumni relations can bring to advancement. At institutions that bring alumni relations and annual giving into closer proximity, alumni will be better educated about how their donations will be used, and will be comfortable knowing that financial support for the institution and its people is an expectation. And eventually, they might respect us more, for our honesty.
It's very important to note that giving is not the sole obligation we should convey to alumni. We also want our graduates to volunteer their time and expertise, to attend events (either face to face or virtual), and to be proud brand ambassadors for alma mater. But we can and should mention donations in the same breath with these other forms of support without having to blush or lower our voices.
Friendraising is dead. Alumni relations and development are, I believe, destined to be ever more interwoven, and that's a good thing, for our donors and for our institutions.
In part 2 of this series I'll ask, How will the changing student experience affect alumni relationships?