Alumni relations professionals launching new programs should survey former students to shape their programming, says a community college practitioner.
The alumni association at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., was founded in 2011. The next year, the association's leaders conducted its first alumni survey.
"We wanted to make sure that we weren't just flailing," says James Toscano, vice president of institutional advancement. "The survey was just to help us understand what our alumni base was interested in and what they thought of us so that we could then organize our programming to meet their expressed interest."
Toscano worked with his alumni board to generate survey questions and his college's institutional research office to ensure the survey's methods were accurate. By making use of staff time and an online survey tool the college was already using, he was able to keep costs minimal.
At the time, the college had more than 42,000 alumni on its rolls with email addresses. Toscano invited a random subset of 20,000 alumni to take the survey.
"We figured, since this was our first survey, that perhaps it was wise to not survey everybody," he says, noting that he wanted to preserve another fresh subset of alumni who he would be able to survey differently in the future.
Toscano says community colleges attempting their first alumni survey need not get caught up in the minutiae of conducting a survey—such as perfecting a sample size or trying to eliminate all biases. For example, he says his survey has some built-in bias because it only makes use of email as a delivery method. Still, he sees it as an acceptable imperfection.
"You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he says. "You can overcome that fear [of perfection] and you can begin to incorporate a culture of data into your alumni association. Do the best you can do. You're going to learn a lot of what you didn't know before."
Ultimately, more than 16,500 alumni received Toscano's email invitation to take the survey. (Some of the emails were undeliverable because of out-of-date addresses.) Nearly 670 alumni participated in the survey-for a response rate of around 4 percent. Toscano says the information he received from the survey was invaluable for his alumni association.
"From a benchmarking standpoint, we learned that a whole lot of people were interested in contributing that weren't contributing," he says. "We learned how to capture those people who would eventually contribute."
For more insight on how to conduct an alumni survey, among other topics, register for the upcoming CASE virtual conference on Engaging Community College Alumni in March. CASE members also can access sample alumni surveys from a variety of institutions.
This article is from the January 2014 issue of the Community College Advancement News.
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