"Retain—Don't Re-engage": How Northwestern University Builds Relationships with Young Alumni

The largest determinant of alumni giving—the student experience—has traditionally not been alumni relations/advancement's responsibility. But with so much hinging on a single variable, some institutions are taking a different approach.

Northwestern University's Senior Associate Director of Alumni Engagement Bobby Dunlap presented on Northwestern's approach at the recent CASE District 5 Conference. We asked him to share some of his advice.

Why is it important to retain rather than re-engage alumni? How did you make this determination at Northwestern?


We focus on retention because it is easier than re-engagement. It’s easier on our end to do our best to never lose an alumnus/a rather than try to re-engage someone who has not made themselves a part of the university for any length of time. Students are, largely, a captive audience who pay closer attention to our emails and other communications. Once a student has left the institution, their attention is divided in more ways.

If we work with them before they leave and have them recognize that their university experience is not a 4ish year transaction, but, rather, the beginning of a life-long relationship, they’ll be much more receptive to our messaging post-graduation. We recognized that alumni are much more inclined to give back with time, talent, and treasure if they feel as though the university is a continued presence and resource in their life.

What is your alumni transition strategy at Northwestern?

We try to provide resource-based opportunities for students: connecting them to alumni, providing them with skill-building experiences, and preparing them to leave Evanston to settle into their new communities. We provide networking etiquette opportunities, career programming, externship opportunities, city-specific rental presentations, social engagement opportunities, a mentorship platform, and celebratory experiences that allow them to enjoy the company of their fellow soon-to-be-graduates. We are constantly assessing our programs to ensure that they’re having the desired impact.

We also have a full-time staff member dedicated to creating and implementing these programs, which makes a huge difference. As this role has evolved, we’re now at a stage where we’ll be hosting deeper dive senior focus groups to assess the programs, their impact, and make recommendations for gaps in our current programming.

What advice can you offer to other institutions looking to implement similar strategies?

Talk to other institutions! We’ve benefitted from creating strong working relationships with our colleagues at various universities like Georgia Tech, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, and many others. We share strategies and programming ideas so we can not only learn from each other’s challenges and successes!

We also have tried a lot of different programs and are willing to change them up if they aren’t meeting our needs. The worst thing you can do is say, “Well this is how we’ve always done it.” If something isn’t effective, move on and assign those resources elsewhere.