Recently, Peter Maher of South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand made the following point in a LinkedIn discussion:
E-mail opened up a wonderful new world of alumni engagement, especially for a university...that has a significant number of alumni around the globe. However...each year I receive exponentially more email correspondence from alumni that require a personal response from me.
It's now taking up most of my time just reading and replying to emails in a considered way that deepens the relationship (rather than giving generic/glib replies). What is the best way of getting the most out of e-mail correspondence with alumni without it becoming your sole accomplishment for the day?
Peter's question illustrates something true of all forms of relationship in all contexts:
Relationship-building doesn't scale.
As the number of relationships increases, converting them into traditional, mutually beneficial outcomes becomes more difficult. Peter points out that a generic or shallow reply won't help an alumnus solve a problem or make valuable connections. But one person in his role can only support so many relationships.
So what can one do?
[There are two obvious strategies – and one non-obvious one]
There are two obvious strategies, each of them somewhat challenging:
1. Exchange the creation of new relationships for fewer – but deeper – relationships;
2. Add staff to create and foster additional relationships, while supporting existing ones.
If you can document engagement opportunities lost to lack of time and attention, you can craft a business case for greater resources – new staff positions and bigger budget. But even with a good business case, for most of us, the additional funds just aren't there. Many alumni offices have had to cut staff; adding new positions is a fantasy.
This prompts me to propose a less obvious strategy:
3. Convert staff positions from traditional roles to online support and interaction roles.
What if someone in Peter's situation had 3 or 4 staff "replying to emails in a considered way that deepens the relationship"? His office could keep pace with the demand for written communication and support. This would mean changing some team members' job descriptions to reflect the increased reliance on online interaction (including email, the web, and social platforms).
[Do we spend too much time emailing our alumni – or not enough?]
Two Final Thoughts
FIrst, alumni relations is communication. Even if they're not attending events or interacting with you in person, alumni feel engaged if they have an open line of communication with their alma mater. (More about this in a future post.)
FInally, our communication with individuals need not solve their problems directly. We should connect them with resources that they can use to solve their own problems ("teach a man to fish..."). Acting as a relationship broker will decrease our time spent on an individual's needs, and show alumni how to use the network for future problem-solving.
What do you think?
Too much time spent emailing with alumni? Or not enough?
How do we balance face to face interaction with the reality that we interact meaningfully with just a small fraction of our audience?