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Sending Signals

Open University takes its brand of distance education global

By Jennifer J. Salopek


Last year, the United Kingdom's Open University received the largest gift in its history — £270,000, or about US$400,000. In the context of U.S. billion-dollar capital campaigns, it might not seem like much. But there's an interesting twist: The gift was a bequest from an Englishwoman who had never taken a course through the OU, much less earned a degree. It seems that she'd simply enjoyed the distance-learning institution's television programs, educational broadcasts called the "Learning Zone" that OU televises through the BBC. If such a tenuous connection can engender such great affection and regard for an institution, imagine how its graduates must feel. For many in the UK, Open University stands as a beacon of accessible higher education. "People are passionately committed to the values of the Open University," says Kitty Chisholm, director of development. "They see education as a tool to improve people's lives, and that is precisely why OU exists."

Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who envisioned a "people's university," conceived of OU in the late 1960s. The institution was founded in Milton Keynes, UK, in 1969 by royal charter. Originally known as "the university of the air" because of its popular television broadcasts, OU's goal is to be open as to people, place, and means. There are no entry requirements, and the university's correspondence-type distance learning means that working adults and people in remote locations can study from home. The concept was popular from the start. In its first year, the university received 40,000 applications for 24,000 places. When OU celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1994, the Times of London wrote that it "has proved a gateway to higher education for almost two generations of blue-collar workers and mature students."

What began as a relatively small, unconventional university has become the UK's largest education institution and an international player in today's distance education market. The prevalence of OU's simple crest logo serves as testament to that growth. A familiar sight on London streets for three decades, it now appears on billboards in Singapore and subway advertisements in the United States. Of the 200,000 to 250,000 students taking OU undergraduate and nondegree courses worldwide, the vast majority are still based in the UK. However, about 30,000 of them are studying through partner campuses in 42 countries, including Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, India, Malaysia, Romania, Russia, the Slovak Republic, and South Africa. An additional 25,000 to 30,000 students around the world are pursuing OU postgraduate or professional degrees, including about a quarter of all MBA students in Hong Kong. (For more about OU and its international growth, see "The OU in the USA".)

With this sweeping expansion, OU's alumni ranks have swelled to 190,000 graduates, including 5,000 outside the UK. Sue Ball, director of alumni relations, estimates that the number of international alumni will increase at least 10 percent annually for the next five years, providing many opportunities and challenges for OU's advancement team.

Loyalty to Principles

OU's relatively young advancement operation has been tracking UK alumni and cultivating them as donors for less than a decade. OU established an alumni association as recently as 1998, and to date, neither the five-person alumni relations team nor the three-person development staff has tapped international constituents. (The AR team plans to change that soon, however.)

Chisholm and Ball direct OU's advancement efforts to fit the strengths and needs of their institution and its graduates. Serving a university without a campus presents some challenges to cultivating alumni. Both note that for many colleges and universities, alumni publications and annual appeals are filled with nostalgic photos of ivy-covered buildings and students walking on the campus quad. As Chisholm says, OU grads do lack "loyalty of place" by virtue of their distance-learning experience. But she and Ball agree that the institution's mission of inclusiveness and the bond students and tutors make with one another during distance-education courses more than compensate for the absence of brick and mortar. Alison Binns, director of alumni fund raising, says, "From a development point of view, the distance-learning approach isn't a problem. There's a fantastic bond among alumni who have the OU experience that beats 'loyalty to place' hands-down."

Alumna Judi Leighton concurs. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in music in the mid-1980s; almost a decade later, she received a letter inviting her to volunteer for an OU phonathon. Leighton signed up immediately.

"The OU has a very important ethos," she says. "The program, through the tutors, gives you an undeniable sense that you'll make a success of it. The tutor support is second to none. Also, knowing that you and your fellow students all sweated through a very difficult program for six or eight years creates a unique bond among us."

Leighton, who works full time and is pursing a Ph.D., has volunteered for the past five years to work two to three shifts a week during each of OU's two annual phonathon campaigns. She also serves as a tutor for an entry-level arts course to ensure that current students have the same positive experience that she did. Each term she guides 15 to 25 students through what may be their first exposure to OU and the difficulties of distance learning.

"That relationship in the first year is vital," she says. "My tutor made each one of us feel as if we were the most important person in the world."

Leighton has taken courses at a traditional institution, the College of Music in London, where "professors exist on a higher plane. There's a sense of deference," she says. "And you're often subtly reminded that there are many others more qualified than you." By contrast, at OU, "there's so much support available, and it's really focused on bringing out what's best in people. There's a great sense of gratitude on the part of the graduates."

Ball tries hard to harness that gratitude, providing multiple ways for alumni to volunteer for the university: "What is quite clear is that alumni are the university's fast route to success. And there are many, many of them out there, just waiting for an opportunity to help." More than 5,000 people have registered as volunteers in the past four years; it's Ball's challenge to match them up with the right need. "We have a list of 20 ways they can help," she says. In addition to fund raising, many alumni assist with student recruitment and mentoring.

Preaching to the Choir

Ball notes that unlike alumni of many colleges and universities, OU graduates are a prime market of repeat customers: Because students can take courses individually as well as in pursuit of a degree, and because OU offers many general-interest and hobby-type courses, graduates enroll in course after course — and are encouraged to do so.

"Alumni are potentially of more benefit to the institution in a marketing [role] than a fund-raising role," Chisholm says. "Word-of-mouth delivers about 19 percent of our new students."

Since returning to the university in February after an 18-year professional sojourn at other universities, Ball has been realigning her staff's goals with marketing in mind. She has made it the primary mission of her AR operation. "The days of alumni relations being solely allied with development are over," she says. "I see alumni relations as relationship marketing — as a driver for OU's strategic marketing initiatives on the international stage."

To increase OU's marketing might, Ball plans to expand the alumni base from those who have completed a degree at OU to all students who have completed a single OU course, which would bring her constituency to more than 2 million worldwide. That would mean, for example, that a University of South Africa student who takes one OU course as part of her degree program would be considered an OU alumna.

"Such graduates would have more than one potential loyalty," Ball notes, "but for our [largely marketing] purposes, the size of the alumni base is what is critical. Plus, opening alumni status to more people is in keeping with OU's inclusive mission."

Ball also aims to create links with the advancement operations on partner campuses to provide alumni relations services and support, which she hopes will lead to enhanced benefits and services on scale with the impressive size of her alumni base. She first will target the three largest pockets of OU alumni in Central and Western Europe, Singapore, and the United States.

The Good Word

OU's main alumni communications vehicle is print-based, although it's available online as well. In an arrangement that would be difficult to replicate in most countries, the Open Eye is published monthly as a special section in The Independent, one of the UK's national newspapers, which has a circulation of approximately 225,000. "It was an extraordinary achievement," Ball says — one that has been written up as a case study by Harvard University students — "although it may not resonate with Americans because there's no real national-newspaper equivalent." But certainly many communications officers in U.S. postsecondary education would jump at the opportunity to have their alumni magazine distributed with, say, USA Today; the visibility would be enormous. OU sends the Open Eye Annual, which features a selection of articles from a year's worth of issues, to about 500,000 students and alumni, including English-speaking graduates outside Great Britain.

The Open Eye is the OU's main method of getting information to alumni, Ball says, but in keeping with her mission, it's also "a PR tool to highlight alumni accomplishments and attract new students." It does that "by showing that the OU is similar to a conventional university in many ways," she says. Given that OU's main appeal seems to be its very unconventionality, Ball admits that the university is, to some extent, trying to be all things to all people: "A new part of our strategy is to reach out to a younger age group, to those just leaving school. We try to set our alumni and their achievements in a wider context and profile them extensively."

OU also offers graduates several traditional affinity programs and a Web site with many communications features, including the opportunity to sign up for alumni e-mail accounts and build personal home pages. The alumni office also issues a monthly e-mail newsletter that goes to more than 14,000 recipients, and it recently participated in a recruitment campaign that enables alumni to send electronic greeting cards to friends and relations, urging them to take an OU course. Although OU does not hold homecomings or reunions, Ball notes that it did conduct its first virtual graduation ceremony in 2000, which was webcast live and watched by people around the world.

"At the OU, everything we do focuses on the lifelong learning agenda," Ball says. Because of that focus, she strives to inject a learning aspect into alumni events. Although most are centered on the graduation ceremonies, other, smaller alumni functions are held in the UK and nearby countries. For example, a group of OU alumni recently made an outing to the replica of the Globe Theatre in London.

The Development Side of The House

Aside from the AR concentration on marketing, another novelty of OU's advancement operation is its heavy emphasis on business development, Chisholm says. An OU student in the early '70s, Chisholm has been working in various capacities at the university since 1976, when she became a research assistant on the arts faculty.

"My current job has a broader scope" than it would in most universities, she says. Along with traditional development duties, Chisholm is responsible for identifying new business markets and opportunities. One of her recent projects is the formation of COROUS, a commercial venture to provide online training services and consulting to corporations, especially those with corporate universities.

Though different in focus from many advancement divisions, OU's operation had a fairly typical beginning. Chisholm oversaw a three-year campaign in the mid-1980s, but annual fund raising didn't really begin in earnest until 1994. That's when Binns, a veteran of the development office at Cambridge University, came on board.

"At the time, there was only a simple, unsophisticated direct mail program," she says. "It was an annual letter, not personalized, and it had been surprisingly successful. However, results had started to decline." Binns took stock and found that the development office didn't have a proper database or accurate donor records.

It took her eight months to get the database in shape to do a personalized mailing. With that under her belt, Binns began to revise the focus of the alumni giving program from blanket appeals to raising awareness of specific programs.

In 1995, Binns surveyed alumni to find out what they wanted their money to support. Easing student financial hardship and assisting students with disabilities topped their lists — both areas in which the university needed additional funds — so she tailored her appeals to reflect those interests. That same year, Binns initiated OU's first phonathon. Since then, she has contacted alumni via a mail and phone campaign twice a year. Although the alumni callers are paid £7 an hour, Binns says that "their main motivation is to give something back to the university. They believe 100 percent in what they're doing."

Aside from the annual campaign, Binns has been focusing her attention on developing a legacy, or planned giving, program. Although OU originally solicited legacies through direct mail, Binns is now moving to a more invitation-based approach. She sees the education of potential donors about planned giving as key; she's been running a series of articles about legacy donors in OU publications and including a low-pressure, postage-paid response card. She admits that the lack of a campus is "somewhat of a challenge in a legacy campaign because there are no buildings built by bequests" at the OU. Her appeals focus on scholarships instead.

As much as OU alumni and donors feel a responsibility to the institution, Binns feels an equal responsibility to them: "I'm very proud of the fact that the alumni fund-raising program has a holistic approach. Although it may sound trite, we believe that donor stewardship is a fundamental part of our work here."

Twice a year, donors receive a newsletter called Open Door, which serves as a thank-you publication and details how OU is spending their money. This year, Binns also inaugurated an annual report, which features color photographs and donor testimonials. Within three months, the publication brought in an additional £18,000 in gifts.

OU alumni fund raising progressed under Binns for four years before the university formed an alumni association. Chisholm tells the tale of attending a CASE conference in the mid-1990s and revealing that the OU was soliciting alumni even though it had no alumni association. She says CASE colleagues immediately sat down with her and helped her sketch out plans for an association, which began in 1998.

As Ball, Binns, and Chisholm prepare to guide OU advancement through a new era in higher education, they contemplate ways to serve an alumni population whose number "is like a piece of string," Chisholm says. They will find it "harder to draw the line between fund raising, business development, and marketing." But, she continues, "We are building relationships to work on all possible levels and making the university richer in many dimensions."

About the Author Jennifer J. Salopek

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in Mclean, Virginia, and a contributing editor to CURRENTS.




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