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The Strategic Synergy of Alumni Engagement and Enrollment Management


Alumni and admissions functions on college campuses have more in common than some might realize or imagine.  Both constitute critical pipelines that generate significant portions of an institution’s annual revenue.  Admissions offices secure revenue by enrolling tuition-paying students who persist through graduation, while alumni offices generate revenue from graduates through annual giving campaigns.

Both spend considerable time and effort in strategic recruitment - admissions offices in recruiting prospective students and alumni offices recruiting alumni and friends into communities of lifelong relationships as advocates, student mentors, potential employers, advisors, donors, and trustees.  Each employs the tactical components of marketing initiatives, prospect research, and outreach campaigns designed to generate interest.

In recent years, competition for the desired audience has increased dramatically for both admissions and alumni.  For admissions, prospective students are applying to ever-increasing numbers of colleges, many offering generous scholarship and grant programs.  The age of the internet has also lessened the ability of colleges and universities to engage every prospective student who peruses their website.  Enrolling desired students without significantly increasing recruitment budgets has become a matter of complex design rather than annual inevitability.

Likewise, alumni professionals face increasing pressure to generate annual, major, and capital gifts from a pool of mature graduates who have many philanthropic choices and also from a younger pool of prospective donors who carry the highest student loan debt burdens in history.  The variety of sources competing for potential donors’ attention, time, and financial investment has expanded exponentially in the digital age.

Now, as the current economy begins to affect endowment and investment returns in 2008, it is likely to factor into prospective donor behavior, too.  In this environment, where operating budgets may stagnate, competition is fierce, and internal expectations remain high, strategic alumni engagement and donor cultivation must rise to the next level in order to remain successful.

The Founding and the Future

The original intent of enrollment management, developed by Maguire Associates’ founder Jack Maguire more than 30 years ago, was that the previously separate functions of admissions, records, financial aid, and research would be brought together under one umbrella to streamline processes, share information, and work seamlessly to the mutual benefit of each individual office and every individual student.  Over time, that vision expanded to include alumni and marketing functions.  Given the parallels and shared principles between admissions and alumni functions, it is unfortunate that this vision is almost never realized (except in rare cases) and the offices work separately with limited interaction. 

In the years that followed the concept’s introduction, the practices of enrollment management within colleges and universities became primarily associated with the admissions and marketing domains, while alumni offices became more a part of development and/or advancement functions.  As we at Maguire Associates endeavor to reintroduce a 21st century understanding of enrollment management, the parallels between admissions and alumni take center stage.  Indeed, the principles that have served the former well in the recent past can more directly benefit the latter in the near future.

Advancing Alumni Engagement within the Framework of Enrollment Management

In higher education, there is constant debate about whether alumni relations should prioritize engagement or development.  Strategically positioned institutions ensure that their work is always about both.  Alumni relations professionals engage and recruit those who ultimately become the donors, simultaneously supporting meaningful engagement and conveying the institutional value and service that necessitate a financial contribution and investment.

The most fundamental obligation an institution has to its alumni is to advance its mission in an ethical and socially responsible manner, acknowledging and embracing alumni as vital stakeholders.  In order to support and respect the nature of both the institution’s and the contributor’s limited resources, outreach strategies and decisions should be based on valid research that informs the institutional understanding of alumni.  Feedback is one essential method of measuring progress toward established goals.


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The diagram above represents one part of the evolution of enrollment management. In contrast with the conventional enrollment funnel that ends when a student enrolls, the relationship between an institution and the student is depicted as a series of funnels that encompass a student’s entire lifecycle with an institution. Instead of thinking about the process in terms of a single vertical funnel where students fall, by chance, through different levels and land at the bottom as enrolled students, consider each major decision point in the entire educational life span as an individual funnel though which a student may or may not pass.

Each step along the way produces an active decision, requiring deliberate forward momentum to reach the next step. As such, it is incumbent upon the institution to serve the students well and address their needs so that they will continue to move through each funnel and continue their active relationship with the institution, from prospective students to engaged and loyal alumni. In the Stewardship space in the lifecycle, leaders, concerned with management of brand properties and financial affairs of the institution, are entrusted to understand, responsibly utilize, and develop human and financial resources for the ongoing health and vitality of the institution.

Though these are complex challenges, academic institutions have a natural audience aligned to their many causes.  Even at institutions only minimally involving their audiences, most alumni feel at least some degree of affection for their alma maters.  But, it is only on paper that graduating students become alumni at commencement.  In practice, they must be recruited, cultivated, and nurtured into engaged community members who support the institution, whether through financial support, new student recruitment, offering employment opportunities, participating in lifelong learning programs, or volunteering time and wisdom.  A detached alumnus is just a graduate.  An engaged alumnus is an ongoing partner and asset.

Engaging Your Alumni

Alumni and development officers are often the stewards of the institution’s brand and tellers of the institutional story.  They are responsible for sharing the institution’s distinctive message and communicating the brand story in clear and captivating ways.  It is essential to connect what the institution is at its core to engagement and fund-raising messages and processes in order to foster a genuine lifelong relationship.  The brand then becomes a narrative that is authentically told, retold, and repeatedly validated.

So, how can alumni and advancement professionals reach out to the right audience with the right message in the right method?  Though the target populations are at a different stage in the education lifecycle, the principles and steps that formulate successful outreach campaigns are much the same in recruitment of prospective students and prospective donors or engaged alumni.  The best strategic practices of high-achieving admissions offices provide underutilized case studies for alumni offices.

Who, What, and How

Alumni and other promising constituencies are often scattered throughout the world.  They are distinguishable by many key features, including graduation year, degree achieved, geographic residence, and past history of engagement and giving.  The optimal deployment of staff time and budgetary expenditure derives from effective research and efficient execution.

Excellence in prospect selection is often marked by:

  1. Focused and targeted donor messaging based on identified differences and tendencies; and
  2. Informed and deliberate communication with groups of previously disengaged alumni determined to have potential for future engagement.

Excellence in messaging frequently includes:

  1. Studied knowledge of how various alumni populations currently view the institution as well as their satisfaction with their student and alumni experience;
  2. Effective thematic messaging that is thoughtfully identified through customized research and subgroup testing; and
  3. Analysis of the ways in which various alumni populations wish to become more connected, and as importantly, ways in which they do not.

Excellence in methodology is identified by:

  1. Branding and fund-raising priorities closely aligned, informed by data analysis and long-term objectives;
  2. Streamlined internal prospecting processes, both one-to-one and one-to-many (direct marketing),  tested and validated for results and efficiency; and
  3. Publication, mailing, and other marketing cost savings reinvested into proven efforts and objectives that provide value for both alumni and the institution.

How does an institution accomplish all this? Often, they donít. Many operate by trial and error, which is costly in terms of lost or underutilized time and resources. Trial and error may produce eventual results, if those results are can be carefully measured and analyzed. Rather than hoping for the best, however, a better approach is to utilize the principles of effective enrollment management that include research and analysis to inform marketing decisions. Assess, attempt, analyze, and adjust.

Without research and careful analysis and planning, the sheer volume of concurrent yet disparate goals can easily create a sense that some goals are unachievable. But, much like effective enrollment management is designed to bring together previously discrete administrative functions into a cohesive continuum, so, too, can customized investigation and study illuminate new ways to create synergy, synthesis, and shared success to previously discrete objectives.

 

Stay tuned to the Maguire Network for ongoing discussion, innovation, and insight to add value and enhance the performance of your alumni engagement and advancement efforts.


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