The Alumni Relations Fork in the Road

Yogi Berra is said to have uttered, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Sure, but wouldn’t a road map guarantee a much greater likelihood of finding your destination?

And so it goes in the alumni relations field: a “roadmap” in the form of a strategic plan is essential for the alumni office to establish a path for engaging graduates in a manner that strengthens their connection and advances the institution.

But too often I hear concerns like these from frustrated alumni staff members:

“People at our institution have no idea what we do.”

“The alumni board seems to have an agenda all their own.”

“Volunteers and chapter leaders often go rogue.”

“We have a hard time saying no, and we’re always under-resourced.”

“We’re not sure what to measure – or how to measure it.”

These statements are actually symptoms – often indicative of an alumni office that lacks a formal strategic plan. As a result, the office tends to operate tactically rather than strategically – and is generally viewed as more reactive rather than being on the leading edge.

There are a few reasons why these conditions exist. It could be that the university leadership is not quite sure what to expect from its alumni team. Or, the alumni office’s culture focuses on what is familiar – i.e., tweaking institutionalized programs rather than seeking new and more purposeful ways to engage graduates.

The tide has turned in the institutional advancement space, as more accountability and impact are being demanded from alumni offices. A university president told me recently that he would invest more in alumni relations “once they start demonstrating that they’re a value-add to the university.” Blunt, though reflective of current budget realities and the campus climate.

A strategic approach to alumni engagement – embodied in an actual document vetted among campus and alumni stakeholders – can effectively mitigate the concerns mentioned above. This is seen as a growing need from our clients, whether preparing for campaign mode or seeking to sharpen their engagement focus.

Topline benefits

The strategic plan will raise the profile of the alumni office as an even more vital campus partner. I refer to the Penn State Alumni Association and The Association of Former Students at Texas A&M as two of the more noteworthy examples in the field.

A strategic plan offers a number of additional outcomes:

  • The alumni board and staff would be compelled to work in greater harmony to advance common goals, and would do so with the understanding that the role of the alumni office is to broadly advance the institution through engagement of its graduates.
  • Alumni volunteers and chapter leaders, supported by this strategic direction and also by the guiding hand of the alumni office, would become more effective advocates for the institution.
  • The strategic priorities would serve as a benchmark for future initiatives, enabling the alumni office to focus on programs that are relevant to its mission.
  • A metrics-based plan – particularly one that links engagement to giving – would provide a greater benchmark for planning and budgeting.
  • Creation of a strategic plan might also motivate the alumni office to embark on empirical research to better understand the attitudes and needs of its graduates. This would address a common concern of alumni offices – not knowing as much about their graduates as they should.

The “how” – the process of actually crafting a strategic plan – can take on various forms. The ideal starting point is with the institution’s president and an expression of their vision for the role the alumni office plays in engaging and mobilizing the graduate pool. The strategic plan should be evaluated annually and serve as a framework for a three-year to five-year timeframe.

The result, as Penn State’s Paul Clifford and A&M’s Porter Garner would concur, is a concise yet powerful document that sets the tone for the alumni office and how it plans to connect generations of current and future alumni in support of the institution. A strategic alumni engagement plan is also a highly professional approach in a field that has increasingly viewed itself as a profession.

So, if you find yourself at the proverbial fork in the road, consult your roadmap!