Alumni Relations Strategic Planning: A Necessary Normal

  • Published May 5, 2020

Beyond its far-reaching medical implications, COVID-19 has created widespread uncertainty as to the funding of higher and secondary education and not-for-profit organizations – which of course extends to the alumni engagement field.

I experienced a similar situation during the 2008-09 recession as chief alumni officer at the University of Arizona. Plummeting state revenues resulted in a 40% budget reduction to the university – a level exacerbated by the cuts being imposed mid-year rather than at the beginning of the fiscal. We had to make up a lot of financial ground, and quickly.

This represented a potential body-blow to our alumni organization: layoffs were imminent, and valued engagement programs and services were at risk. Furthermore, revenues from our affinity partners, the travel program and the Alumni Association endowment were dwindling.

Despite this gloomy forecast, two factors allowed us to move forward and eventually emerge from a position of relative strength.

One, the university administration initiated its so-called “Transformation Plan,” an unprecedented campus-wide mandate that required each unit to critically determine areas for consolidation, realignment or reform in view of the severe budget reductions.

Two, the Alumni Association’s new Strategic Plan provided a framework that supported a greater sense of priority and focus no matter the extent of the budget cut.

The resulting layoffs were painful, as were the program budget reductions. But it’s important to note that, unlike many units at U of A, we chose strategic rather than across-the-board cuts. Furthermore, our strategic foundation and the impetus to “transform” enabled us to:

  • Focus on core programming that made the most impact. We could no longer take the approach of being “all things to all alumni” – not should we have.
  • Develop a greater sense of intentionality. Return-on-engagement became our principal yardstick; programs that didn’t deliver on the Strategic Plan were jettisoned.
  • Strengthen strategic partnerships across campus. Heightened collaboration resulted in more strategic and cost-effective efforts with the colleges and units. The Alumni Student Recruitment and Alumni Career Networking programs were hatched during this period.
  • Cultivate an internal culture of innovation. Our organization had no choice but to rise up to these challenges and shed any sense of risk aversion.

These, in fact, were lasting consequences that defined the alumni office well past the eventual restoration of operational and programming funds.

So, when you’re feeling like your back is against the wall in terms of budget cuts and uncertain conditions, the one thing you must be able to rely on is a well-defined strategic direction.

As I mentioned in my last article, Alumni Relations Forecast 2020: Reboot, the plan will contribute to a more effective organizational view no matter how resources may have diminished. Regardless of today’s economic uncertainty, there is no greater opportunity than a time like this to invest in a strategic alumni engagement roadmap.

You can find my previous article here.