Last week, in “The Problem with Alumni Network Platforms,” Ryan Catherwood shared a long overdue critique of alumni networking platforms. He questioned their efficacy and impact, and made public the private thoughts that many in higher education share.
As the co-founder of one of the vendors listed in passing, I’m responding not to refute or defend Ryan’s assertions, but to agree with and validate his sentiments. I’d argue Ryan’s take was charitable, and that the broader situation is more dire and disorganized than presented.
Our Higher Education Innovation Fellows had their first onsite workshop here at Switchboard HQ in Portland, Oregon last week. I have never seen an audience that engaged, so I thought I'd share some of the insights from the five HEIF faculty members who presented to the fellows across those two-and-a-half days.
These faculty will be returning in June to lead the first workshop for our summer cohort of fellows.
The funnel is a strategy that informs much of what we do in alumni relations, advancement, and alumni career services. We use it to move people from where they are to where we want them to be—engaged alumna to volunteer, engaged alumna to donor, engaged aluma to mentor.
I will explain how it is flawed by way of comparison. I invite you to consider an alternative metaphor: the engagement web.
Launching new strategies and programs is always daunting. We often feel like we have to have everything ready to go right out of the gate. (Not to mention the fact we don't want our colleagues and supervisors to think that we're winging it.)
But in reality, we have to start with small prototypes, adjust our expectations, and test and tweak our programs to fit our audience before we can scale up. That's how Concordia College, a liberal arts college with 2,500 students in Moorhead, Minnesota, doubled its young alumni giving rate in three years. First it simply began targeting online outreach to young alumni, and then gradually moved into young-alumni-specific events, and eventually established young alumni engagement committees run by volunteers.
Pick a career services professional at any school, and you’ll find that they’re busy. Too many students to help, too little time.
Not to mention alumni. Many career services offices don’t have time to serve alumni, and even those that do often only have one or two people serving a population of thousands—or tens of thousands.
No matter how many one-on-one meetings you have or events you throw, when you’re operating on that kind of scale, there’s no way that traditional methods can help all the students and alumni who need it.
We all, to some degree, focus our efforts on the alumni who we think are most likely to yield results. We have limited time and resources, and that makes the best use of them. Right?
“Let’s start an entrepreneurship program!”
Entrepreneurship is the latest buzzword in higher education, and it’s attracting big donors and lots of press. But there’s a part of the story that isn’t getting enough buzz: according to a report by the Small Business Administration, millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in history.
The biggest reason they aren’t starting those startups? Financial insecurity. With more alumni shouldering more debt, it’s too risky to take the leap. Higher ed’s new entrepreneurship programs have the same problem that millennials face in every other aspect of their lives. Financial insecurity prevents millennials from doing everything from giving back to their alma maters to buying houses and getting married.
When your ship is sinking, is it better to try to patch the leaks, or to build another boat?
In higher ed, whether we realize it or not, our first instinct is often to build another boat. When our existing programming stops drawing crowds, we look for new programming to bring them back. What we should do instead is ask ourselves, "Why did this stop working?" and then try to fix it.
Since joining Switchboard last year, I’ve seen the reaffirmation of three critical principles that drive successful alumni engagement. These golden rules apply to every type of alumni community—schools and universities, other non-profits, and corporate alumni networks alike. I’ve worked in alumni relations professionally since 1989, have blogged about alumni relations for 11 years, and have consulted on it for about 50 organizations in a dozen countries.
And through it all, these basic tenets have held true.
They’re the kind of things that sound obvious when you hear them. Mentioning these guidelines generates vigorous and sincere agreement from consulting clients, but scanning the profession, I see many organizations that ignore them in practice.