Alumni Engagement and Marketing: Innovating New Org Structures

This article previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed and it is posted here with permission of the author.

Should we consider alumni engagement an important metric for gauging the success and impact of an institution’s marketing department? The 2019 CMO study (conducted by our friends at SimpsonScarborough) asked senior officers overseeing their institution’s marketing and communications about the metrics that their president or chancellor uses.

The number and quality of undergraduate students enrolling was—as one might expect—the top response. Least cited on the list of 11 metrics to assess a marketing department’s impact? Alumni engagement.

While not entirely surprised, as a former alumni officer I was still a bit disappointed to see alumni engagement last on the list. An institution’s largest constituency, alumni are a vital asset to the success of a college or university, especially when mobilized to help one another and their school throughout their lives.

A variety of reasons could explain why alumni engagement was the least selected metric by the 270 responding CMOs. Here are three:

  • Alumni offices and alumni associations have matured, and many have established or grown their own marketing teams. When the heavy lifting is done elsewhere, alumni engagement is less of a priority for the central marketing team.
  • Alumni engagement takes a back seat to alumni giving as a metric when an institution has a limited view of engagement as simply donor cultivation. In this fundraising-centered approach, alumni giving is the primary goal and measure.
  • Related, alumni engagement is difficult to measure and is thus not a top-of-mind, common metric.

On the topic of metrics, kudos to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which has been tackling the tall task of establishing an industrywide framework for measuring alumni engagement. The task force defined alumni engagement as “activities that are valued by alumni, build enduring and mutually beneficial relationships, inspire loyalty and financial support, strengthen the institution’s reputation and involve alumni in meaningful activities to advance the institution’s mission.”

Metrics are based on engagement activity in the following four areas: volunteer, experiential, philanthropic and communications. (I would add a fifth area, learning, as the changing nature of work accelerates, requiring a learning ecosystem that serves the modern and future lifelong learner.)

Let’s take a step back. The predominant organizational alignment for alumni relations in higher education is currently with development, with alumni relations typically reporting up to a vice president for advancement who serves as the institution’s chief development officer. Yet, philanthropy is just one of the four (or five) categories here.

Philanthropy is critical as a mutually beneficial partnership to advance academic, research and other institutional goals. But philanthropy is not the lens through which all alumni wish to view their relationship with their alma mater, and mutually beneficial partnerships can take many forms.

If these other categories of engagement are important (and I certainly agree that they are), structure should follow strategy. What other organizational models could we explore? What would it mean if, for example, alumni engagement and marketing were organizationally connected? Might we need to spend less on institutional brand advertising because we have more brand advocates activated among our alumni base?

Another model that’s surfacing aligns alumni relations and career services. I applaud institutions that have moved in this direction because they’re taking a constituent-centric approach that offers real value and support for alumni and is directly relevant to their lives.

In a previous vice chancellor role, I led a division that included marketing and communications (whose focus was enrollment marketing and brand building), campus life, alumni relations, and development. From the outside, the inclusion of campus life likely seemed odd. From the inside, it was a competitive advantage. We wanted to eliminate silos (we often forget that our important audiences view an institution holistically), maximize integration and reduce friction across the constituent lifecycle. Engagement improved among newer alumni, because they no longer had to reintroduce themselves to the university; our division already knew them and their interests when they transitioned from student to graduate.

As colleges and universities grapple with the challenges of shifting demographics, institutions should consider whether they are leveraging alumni to strategically support student recruitment and retention. For a while, DePaul University experimented with integrating alumni relations into the enrollment management division. The point is, there doesn’t have to be just one organizational model, and marketing leaders can lend a needed constituent-first perspective to this institutional discussion.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is Vice President at RHB.