Alumni Relations Forecast 2020: Reboot

  • Published April 6, 2020

In December, I asked 50 leading alumni directors their thoughts on the approaching decade with a simple question: “What is your biggest concern entering 2020?”

This led to publication of the article, “Alumni Relations Forecast 2020: Relevance Rules.”

Most responded that “relevance” was top of mind: a broad concern that their alumni offices were perhaps not as relevant as they could be to their constituents of graduates, parents and friends.

My goodness, how things have changed in just a few short months in ways we could never have anticipated.

We may return to a semblance of normalcy by the end of the year. But I doubt we will return to normal.

The coronavirus has forced our hand with a dramatic interruption to our work lifestyle. We’ve had to become nimble and more creative (and Zoom has become our new best friend!); this will have long-ranging and highly positive implications.

Alumni offices across North America are demonstrating new levels of engagement including upgrading of digital media platforms; creation of “virtual” reunions, commencements and regional gatherings; greater packaging of faculty content online; and expansion of Facebook groups such as alumni book clubs and Happy Hours, to name a just few.

This does not spell the end of in-person engagement: alumni will have a pent-up desire for a return to face-to-face connections with their institution in one way or another. I mean, a “virtual tailgate” only goes so far.  And we’re starting to see spring and summer reunion events pushed back to the fall – a different dynamic but necessary in these times.

However, this escalating expansion in the use of digital media in the alumni engagement space is, frankly, a long time coming. We won’t be turning back. It’s no longer acceptable for alumni offices to shrug off their lack of digital prowess. Those that do need to turn that corner, and quickly.

And as our digital footprint grows, we will continue to discover innovative and efficient ways to connect alumni – around the globe, 24/7. That’s a “new normal” I can certainly live with!

Let’s go back to the relevancy question for a minute. It’s hard to forecast anything these days, but I am confident that five things must be addressed if alumni offices are to remain relevant in this hyper-evolving environment.

  1. The first is the alumni database. The median level of accurate e-mail addresses is somewhere in the area of 60 percent of the alumni database. While e-mail acquisition can be a moving target, alumni offices and their advancement services partners must deploy whatever means possible to increase the number of good email addresses. There is no bigger priority in a digital world.
  2. Next is the alumni website. This is the digital front door for alumni engagement wherever your graduates may reside around the world. The website must be as engaging as Facebook, as easy to use as Linkedin, as fun as TikTok and as current as The user experience must mirror how your alumni navigate other websites in their daily lives. Is your alumni website a “must-see”?
  3. Third is the necessity of having a dedicated digital media professional on your alumni engagement staff. This job is often farmed out to someone in the Advancement Communications office who, because of other demands on their time, may not be able to give their full attention to the alumni office’s needs. Whatever the case, this is one job function that requires a full-time, focused effort as alumni digital communications continue to take center stage.
  4. The fourth factor reflects a cultural change: we have entered a transformational era in alumni engagement programming and communications. It’s not a matter of “thinking outside the box”; there really is no box right now. Change is difficult – but chief alumni officers must lead their staff and volunteers to operate beyond what is known and comfortable, and to seek new and more efficient ways to bring their institution to alumni and vice versa, particularly in a digital context.
  5. Finally, if your alumni organization does not have a strategic plan, you need one. When you feel that your back is against the wall with declining resources exacerbated by these uncertain times, you can rely on the foundational elements of a strategic plan for alumni engagement to provide a necessary sense of priority. A strategic plan will enable you to emphasize things you are best at with the flexibility to be innovative, while allowing you to shed practices that haven’t made a difference in your business model. This is a time for focus and vision, not a time to continue to be all things to all constituents and stakeholders. You will also find that a strategic plan will provide a pathway for greater partnerships and collaboration across campus. After all, we’re in this together.

As always, I welcome your thoughts – and stay safe.