As I talk with advancement professionals around the country, I often hear them ask “How do I get alumni to focus on how they can support their alma mater? The alumni need to understand that the amount they paid for their education did not cover the cost of that education and that without their support the university cannot succeed.” When I hear this I am reminded of Jack Dutton, a boss I had when I was working my first job after graduate school in the natural gas industry. He had a sign on his desk that said “Don’t tell me about what you did for me yesterday; tell me what you’re going to do for me today.” Jack was an old-school Texas oilman and he pointed to that sign a lot in the years that I worked with and for him.
The reason I think of Jack when I hear advancement professionals talk about what alumni need to do for the institution is that in many ways they have it backwards. Our research shows over and over again that alumni want to know that the equity of their degree is increasing over time.
This is different for different institutions, but the theme is very consistent. The reason this consistently presents itself, as an actionable part of our work, is that alumni are not that different from my old friend Jack Dutton. They know that the equity of their degree is a real asset and that, like other assets they have, needs to be managed to provide consistent value or growth in value.
Alumni want to know what their alma mater is doing to make their degree increase in value in whatever way they define that value. The conversation they are looking for is not simply about what success the university has had in the past or even about the great alumni that have graduated from the university. Rather, alumni want to hear about how the activities of a famous alumnus/a increase the value of their degree. As an alumnus/a, I want to know what you are doing today and plan to do tomorrow that will help me feel better about my decision to make you (my alma mater) part of my life.
We know that 95% of alumni feel very good about their decision to attend their alma mater and 93% (from AAS survey results of over 500K alumni from 230 universities) have a high current opinion of the institution. What is missing is the connection between that desire to feel good about such an important and integral decision in their lives and what they are now hearing about that affinity. Alumni want external stimuli confirming the quality of their decision about where to attend college. Those stimuli can come from others or it can come via well-targeted communications from the institution or, ideally, a combination of both.
The main point is that they want to feel like there is improvement. They want to know that the things important to them about their experience are improving and important to the experience of current students. Not only because it makes them feel good that current students have a meaningful experience, but also because they personally benefit when current graduates are sought after and respected. All of a sudden that diploma on the wall gets a little bit more respect, and that respect transfers directly to them.
This is especially true of younger alumni. Over and over we see how younger alumni are very focused on knowing where their money is going. “What am I getting for my donation?” For the older alumni, it is often enough to know that giving to their alma mater is the right thing to do. We do not see this same sentiment among the younger alumni. We cannot yet tell whether this is simply a function of age or if it is a fundamental difference between the eras. Maybe the older alumni were more self-focused in their youth and the more recent alumni will look like their elders when they have children and grandchildren attending universities. Maybe this is the case, but I doubt it. The difference runs deep into the fabric of how younger alumni communicate with each other and the tools they have at their disposal to manage this communication.
Some argue that we are headed to a time when many people will never have a full-time employer. They are simply free agents operating from their blog and Facebook/Twitter presence; fully responsible for their profile, reputation, and self-promotion. In essence, this is the same way a junior associate operates in a large accounting or law firm, but on a global scale. At the heart of this analogy, though, is the way this system drives the individual to a more self-focused orientation. How do the elements of my life affect my profile in the world? Clearly, one of the most important parts of this profile is my alma mater.
At the end of the day, the question we should be asking is “What are we doing as a university to help the alumnus/a succeed?,” not what are they doing to help the university succeed. If we operate in accordance with that sign on Jack Dutton’s desk, I suspect that a lot more alumni will become and stay involved.
Blog written by Robert D. Shoss
Analytical support provided by Jonathan Gaines
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