Last week, I asked whether advancement needs a more formal theoretical framework. This week, I want to share the work of JT Forbes at Indiana University, and his colleagues in the Council of Alumni Association Executives (CAAE).
Recently, JT emailed me about a blog post titled Toward a Common Definition and Taxonomy for Alumni Engagement.
JT's email, blog post, and linked document [PDF] are in the same vein as the ideas I shared last week, but are more practical and specific to alumni relations. He and fellow members of the Council of Alumni Association Executives (CAAE), propose that alumni relations needs "a unifying definition and taxonomy of alumni engagement that reflects the diverse and vibrant tapestry of alumni relations work."
The goal: to establish a shared language around engagement. "With a strong foundation of core concepts in place," they write, "innovation and professional practice will grow and thrive."
Grateful to JT for his request for feedback, I am sharing my initial thoughts here. JT and his colleagues encourage additional feedback and comments on this work.
[Does alumni relations need a unifying definition of engagement?
A typology that describes its common principles?]
5 Comments on a Framework for Alumni Relations
- The rationale is strong
Why do this at all? I agree with the draft's premise: "A shared definition of alumni engagement...provides the foundation for assessment, growth, and innovation in our field. Without these in place, we will struggle to...adapt and evolve."
- We need a typology, not a taxonomy
A typology is more theoretical (and arbitrary) than a taxonomy, but also more flexible. A taxonomy tends to be set, and examples that come along after it is established must fit a pre-established hierarchy. A typology can be updated along the way, and lends itself to a rapidly changing field like alumni relations. [For a more in depth comparison of typology versus taxonomy, see Dave Snowden's comments on the subject.]
- Several of the domains overlap
JT's draft recognizes this, and it's another reason a typology makes sense. For example, "global and international outreach" happens most often in the presence of "alumni community development." I.e., your institution is more likely to host an overseas event in a city with an active alumni club. This isn't bad; we just need to acknowledge the degree to which these domains overlap, mix and intermingle.
- We just need to come close
We don't need a perfect, finished product. JT's draft might be enough to get us started using the descriptions we'd want to characterize our work.
- Characterizing existing programming is the next step
One immediate use for the typology would be assessing how different advancement teams deploy the domains. What percentage of our effort is devoted to volunteer management? To clubs and chapters? Career programs? Do outcomes show that a particular distribution of effort, or a consistent set of priorities lead to more success? Do they correlate to organization type or scale?
[A definition and typology for alumni engagment will help us articulate
our purpose and whether we are achieving it]
5 Challenges We Face Next
In addition to fine-tuning the descriptions of each program area (domain), we should address the following:
- We should agree on what "engagement" includes
To study and classify something, we must agree on what it is. At the very least, we should address "active" versus "passive" engagement. Often, alumni feel engaged who merely read the magazine and follow us on Twitter. By our definition, they aren't engaged, and we might be under-valuing them.
- Profession-wide trends are cyclical
New waves of interest wash over the profession until people are accustomed to hearing about something. After a few conference keynotes and a CASE Currents cover story, we shift our attention to a new topic. We should make rapid progress on this particular challenge before practitioners are tired of hearing about it. (I predict that analytics will be the next hot thing, and it should be.)
- Advancement will resist "classification"
The variety of models within our profession guarantees that no typology will be complete enough to stand on its own. There will be multiple versions of the definitions, for different markets, advancement cultures, and types of institutions. Advancement relies on human behavior, which defies global, standardized models.
- We should not rely entirely on predictive models
I've mentioned that we need to reserve a spot for professional judgment alongside our increased understanding of data modeling. We can increase our overall effectiveness by using analytics and big data. But decisions about how to engage a particular volunteer or when to ask for a large gift depend more on our human understanding of an individual's motivation than on a quantitative analysis of "people who are like that person." So far – in my experience – data-driven suggestion engines (like Amazon or Netflix) are still wrong more often than they are right. They can also prevent users from exploring unconventional solutions to current problems.
- Innovation helps and hinders classification
Our society is obsessed with fostering a culture of innovation. And every new tool that helps us solve a problem also makes new outcomes possible. We will need to update our typology constantly to account for newly-desired desired outcomes (and newly-created problems).
Today's financially constrained and increasingly business-like environment in advancement means we are ever-more focused on return on investment. I agree that we will benefit eventually from a more systematic and consistent approach to our profession. By itself, a definition and typology for alumni engagement can't solve our dilemmas. But it will help us articulate more effectively – especially to those elsewhere in the institution – what our purpose is, and how we know whether we are achieving it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.