Susan Shullaw on Alumni Engagement

Higher education strategic communications expert Susan Shullaw looks at what the business concept of the value chain could mean for alumni engagement.

With downward pressure on tuition dollars, public support, and other revenue sources, philanthropy is playing an increasingly vital role in college and university funding. Accordingly, recent headlines announcing another record-breaking year in charitable gifts to higher ed ($40.3 billion!) should be cause for celebration, right? Alas, the Council for Aid to Education’s most recent Voluntary Support of Education survey also contained some less-than-happy news. Again.

As nearly every annual fund director will attest, alumni are making larger gifts these days, but fewer alumni are making any gifts at all. CAE confirms that alumni participation continued its decades-long decline in 2015—now somewhere south of 10 percent, on average—which CAE attributes largely to the growth in numbers of “contactable” graduates.

VSE survey director Ann E. Kaplan nails it: “Participation will only increase if the number of donors rises more than the number of located alumni. This is unlikely in a technological age in which individuals may have multiple means of contact that make them easy to locate. Finding an address is much simpler than cultivating a relationship that leads to a contribution.”

Kaplan is absolutely right. Relationship building is hard work, although it’s the business most of us are in—whether one’s title is Chief Development Officer or Chief Enrollment Officer or Chief Marketing Officer or, for that matter, Dean of Students. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Are administrative silos getting in the way of fully developing what’s been described as the alumni engagement lifecycle—a relationship continuum that begins long before graduation?

Years ago, when I worked for an interim university president who happened to be an economist, I was introduced to the concept of the value chain, which can be described as the internal processes and activities that, step by step, add value to the products or services an organization offers to its customers. (I know this is sounding a little too corporate, but bear with me.) With an integrated and systemic focus on what the customer perceives as valuable, both before and after the “sale,” organizations employing a value-chain approach often gain a competitive advantage.

How does this concept apply to alumni engagement?

Enrollment and marketing managers alike know that articulating your institution’s unique value proposition is job #1. What features and benefits set you apart in the minds of prospective students and their parents? Why enroll in your institution versus the equally fine college down the road? What’s the anticipated ROI?

Now, take it a step further. Your value proposition likely is made up of multiple elements; perhaps it’s the combination of academic quality, off-campus experiences, a great career-planning center, and generous financial aid. These are the key links in your value chain during the time your students—those future alumni—are still on campus. Are the leaders of these various areas or offices talking to one another? Are they exploring synergistic partnerships that might enhance value even further? Are they engaging in continuous improvement?

Add more links: Make sure your offices of marketing communications, development, alumni relations, and other outward-facing units understand their place in the value chain. To borrow another phrase from business, remember to “recruit your keepers.” Are current students and parents regularly reminded of the value they’re reaping as members of your institutional family? Are students given opportunities to learn about the role of philanthropy in creating and maintaining value—and to possibly participate as early contributors? Perhaps most important, how does your value proposition change in the minds of your alumni after graduation?

Over the course of their lives, graduates see value in many kinds of tangibles and intangibles provided by their alma maters, from football tickets to the pride of being part of a shared collegiate tribe. But increasingly these days, alumni are interested not only in what they can obtain from their colleges, but what they can accomplish through them. Millennials and boomers alike want to change the world; colleges and universities must offer alumni more opportunities to do so, whether as volunteers or philanthropists.

When you begin seeing alumni engagement as a value chain, starting with admission, continuing beyond graduation and, potentially, having no end (when bequests are involved), it pays to examine every link to ensure that value is being maximized along the way. This is an institution-wide undertaking, requiring big-picture thinking, strong communication skills, a donor-centric mindset, and the ability to appreciate what each office or area of campus brings to the table.

From this perspective, the notion of a Chief Value Officer—a concept introduced in the business world a decade or so ago—may not be so far-fetched. In fact, at a time of shrinking resources and increased competition, it just might be the most valuable position on campus.