Alumni Relations-Development Integration: Concerns and Opportunities

Diverse group of people working together

The movement toward alignment of Alumni and Development functions has been validated by the recent Voluntary Alumni Engagement in Support of Education (VAESE) benchmarking study, which reported that two-thirds of alumni offices are either fully integrated with Development, or working toward integration. Yet in the same study, alumni directors expressed a concern that lifelong alumni engagement may suffer because of a growing emphasis on short-term fundraising. Coincidental or not, the subject of whether Alumni Relations is becoming subordinate to Development has gained noticeable traction.

This can be a touchy subject. Alumni relations offices are dedicated to fully and purposefully engaging the alumni body on a continuum to advance the institution – and by doing so, strengthening their role on campus as a key advancement partner. Yet there is a fear that these efforts are becoming marginalized. “We used to be considered marketers of the university,” said Howard Wolf, head of the Stanford Alumni Association. “Now, it seems we’re becoming the marketing wing of the Annual Fund.”

Optimally, all parties under the advancement umbrella – and I’m including institutional leadership in this discussion – must adopt an uncompromisingly holistic view of the broad-reaching impact of the alumni body. Alumni are lifelong stakeholders that should be cultivated as a vital institutional asset – and this goes far beyond their value as a donor base.

Do some chief development officers view alumni only through the lens of major gift potential (or at the very least, from the standpoint of annual participation rate)? No doubt. And it’s a good bet that many institutional CEOs see things similarly: for both, the predominant metric on their “scorecard” is the amount of dollars raised. But to downplay the broad role of the alumni office – with its ability to mobilize vast numbers of graduates in an organized manner for the purposes of recruitment, advocacy, career support and goodwill – would be extraordinarily short-sighted. Alumni – particularly recent grads – want to feel that they’re valued by their alma mater. But what does it say about institutional priorities when, according to the VAESE study, more than 80 percent of alumni receive at least one gift solicitation within their first year of graduating?

On the other hand, do some alumni directors fail to appreciate the impact of their efforts to connect and engage alumni? Absolutely, and this is equally short-sighted. Chapter and reunion events are held for what purpose? To what degree are these active alumni being asked to make their institution stronger? A 10 percent increase in Homecoming attendance is a fairly hollow metric unless the advancement team works collaboratively to cultivate these alums that have returned to campus and who depart the weekend feeling energized about their institution. The fact that engaged alumni tend to be far more likely to make a gift (as substantiated by a growing body of empirical data) should, to some degree, impact alumni relations programming and communications strategies.

There are two knowns: One, institutional pressure to raise funds is intense. Two, the institution cannot succeed without a vibrant and engaged alumni body. The contemporary advancement professional adopts this broad view. This isn’t about turf, nor is it a “donor-first” approach. It’s about connecting alumni in a collaborative, coordinated approach between Alumni Relations and Development regardless of the organizational model. The result will come in terms of meaningful, impactful, sustainable ways that strengthen the institution – financially and otherwise – while serving the needs of its graduates.