A Strategy for Alumni Relations

I recently posted a blog on the importance of strategic planning in the alumni relations realm. From our vantage point as consultants, the lack of an alumni-centric strategic plan is fairly easy to diagnose; the benefits of developing and implementing a measurable engagement strategy with the input of a broad range of stakeholders are almost too numerous to mention.

My Marts & Lundy colleague and longtime head of CASE, John Lippincott, postured an interesting take recently on the subject of strategic planning. “The question isn’t just whether there is an alumni relations strategic plan,” he said. “The important thing is whether the institution has a strategy for alumni relations.”

John is spot-on as usual.

The alumni office has the responsibility to mobilize and support its graduates to advance the institution’s goals – period. How it accomplishes this is a matter of vision, talent and resources. And, a metrics-based approach is critical. To underscore its importance, if the alumni office isn’t effectively reaching the broad alumni community, then no one is.

But does institutional leadership always get this?

Unfortunately, alumni offices are occasionally referred by campus leaders as “those nice people at the Alumni House who put on events.” How often do I hear this cringe-worthy “party planner” statement? All. The. Time.

Sometimes, there is a more enlightened presidential view along the lines of, “The alumni office creates a pool of donors.” Close, but not enough.

John’s point is that the institution that views alumni only through the lens of donor cultivation is missing out on the potential to strategically deploy its graduates to achieve many other goals.

When Rutgers President (now Emeritus) Richard L. McCormick oversaw a restructure in the alumni relations area a decade ago, he proclaimed, “Rutgers has a responsibility to support its alumni for a lifetime. Alumni must be recognized, respected and supported as an institutional asset.” This kind of belief from the chief executive paves the way for the alumni office to have a seat at the table.

Former Ohio State President William (Brit) Kirwan was equally pointed with this assessment: “Just as the university cannot thrive without academics, the arts or athletics, it cannot succeed without a vibrant and engaged alumni body.”

An institution’s expectation of alumni relations is also irrespective of the structure of the alumni office. Whether the office functions as an independent, inter-dependent or dependent entity, the key is how well it serves their institution – and what attention the institution gives to maximizing the assets of their alumni function.

Make no mistake: the alumni office must live up to its end of the bargain. An alumni enterprise that remains deliberately at arm’s length from development, for instance, or doesn’t work effectively with its advancement partners across campus, or fails to address the constituent engagement goals spelled out in the institution’s own strategic plan, it will never be fully appreciated as a strategic partner.

If the alumni office’s mission is to advance the institution, then the institutional leadership must be joined in this effort.