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If You Build It, Alumni Will Engage
If You Build It, Alumni Will Engage

Thriving community college alumni programs share a common starting point: a concerted investment in building detailed, dynamic databases

By Kristin Simonetti

Richard Borge c/o

Sophia James felt like James Bond. In her hands: two password-protected DVDs. The discs contained nearly 100,000 records of current and former Houston Community College students. James, director of advancement services for the HCC Foundation, unlocked the discs using a sheet of instructions, which immediately self-destructed upon completion. OK, the paper didn't explode, but James was required to destroy the list with witnesses present.

James wasn't on a covert intelligence mission. During those weeks in 2008, she was building a database for HCC's foundation and nascent alumni association. It was a successful end to an arduous process of gaining permission to access the school's records since its earliest days in 1971. But now she faced other challenges: How accurate was the information, and how could she use it to engage HCC alumni in a meaningful way for the first time?

Many community college advancement leaders find themselves in similar circumstances. They've made a compelling case to create an alumni relations program—now what? Building a robust and reliable database is a must. It forms the backbone of any engagement enterprise, handling tasks that range from creating mailing lists for the alumni magazine to identifying graduates in finance who can place current students in internships. And it's invaluable for fundraising, according to results from CASE's 2012 Community College Alumni Relations survey: The percentage of viable mailing and email addresses correlates significantly with the percentage of alumni who give—a key indicator of engagement.

Here are five important steps to take when gathering, cleaning, storing, and deploying data to get your alumni program off to a brilliant beginning.

1. Define your universe

CASE guidelines for giving rates define alumni not only as students who earn a degree or a certificate but also as those who receive credit toward a credential. For community colleges, that's a massive number—13 million people were enrolled in U.S. community colleges, according to the latest American Association of Community Colleges data.

Managing such a huge pool of people is a challenge for these institutions, which typically have small advancement staffs. Many community colleges narrow their focus, using credit hours to determine alumni status. In the 2012 CASE benchmarking survey, 30 percent of respondents used this approach. HCC classifies students as alumni once they reach 40 credit hours because the registrar's office determined that the majority of students achieve that many hours regardless of whether they receive a degree or a certificate.

But narrow definitions could cost institutions major donors and dynamic volunteers, warns John Fellas, director of alumni relations for the State University of New York's Westchester Community College Foundation. The institution classifies students who have earned at least 24 credit hours as alumni.

"One of our biggest supporters does not have a degree or a certificate from WCC. He serves on our foundation's board and is a major contributor to and promoter of the institution, but he'd only taken three courses. He wasn't even in our database as an alumnus," Fellas says.

2. Pick the right product

Despite compelling evidence that links accurate constituent information with advancement success, just 58 percent of community college advancement offices maintain their own databases, the 2012 CASE benchmarking study shows.

Institutions selecting a database product should focus on two attributes—importing and exporting abilities—says John Taylor, an advancement consultant in North Carolina. "It's one thing to find a cheap database," he says, "but it's another to find one that handles the information an institution needs today and expects to need in the future. It's all about data collection and data integrity."

Some questions to ask while shopping: Can the software import information from other systems it works with, such as those used by your college's registrar and institutional research staff? Will the product appropriately segment data, and can you easily customize reports? Does the database have enough preset or customizable fields to hold all your constituents' information?

When working with smaller shops, Taylor most often encounters Blackbaud's eTapestry, a cloud-based database program that doesn't require a major investment in hardware. A midmarket option for larger shops is Agilon's One donor-management system. Other widely used programs include Blackbaud's The Raiser's Edge, Abila's Fundraising 50 or Fundraising Online, and DonorPerfect. For a look at these and other technology solutions, consult Idealware's A Consumer's Guide to Donor Management Systems.

3. Place faces with names

As the alumni and event coordinator at Wyoming's Sheridan College Foundation, Debi Isakson needed detailed data. But the records she received from the college's registrar provided only alumni names and contact information—not majors, extracurricular activities, employment history, or other potentially useful data. Isakson knew effective alumni engagement strategies center on targeted, affinity-based outreach instead of generic mass communication, so she embarked on another fact-finding mission.

Because she works in a small advancement office—two staff members cover alumni relations, and that's only part of their job descriptions—Isakson focused on a handful of indicators: scholarship recipients; students who lived on campus; and those who participated in student government, athletics, and the honor society. She reached out to admissions, residence life, and student affairs for lists of students involved in each area, adding the information to their records in her database.

There isn't a science to uncovering this kind of information, Fellas says. He's relied on several tactics, including two unorthodox yet target-rich sources: yearbooks and athletics department files. Fellas and several student workers pored through WCC yearbooks, which were published until 1988. Each book listed students by name and included their activities. Fellas also reviewed eligibility forms that WCC's athletics administrators have filed with the National Junior College Athletic Association. The records identified which alumni played for WCC's sports teams and when. Fellas added the additional information to the corresponding alumni records for those students.

4. Aim for accuracy

When James received HCC's student data, she sent the information to Blackbaud for verification. The endeavor accurately updated about 88 percent of the initial 100,000 listings. The company also searched for telephone numbers, death records, and email addresses. The latter search returned information for more than 50 percent of the list—about 60,000 valid email addresses.

"If we ever want to do a phonathon, we have the numbers ready," James says. "If we want to profile someone for the magazine or the website, we can reach out to most via email."

Fifty-three percent of respondents to the 2012 CASE benchmarking survey run a National Change of Address scan each year, and 23 percent invest in quarterly checks. Less than 40 percent verify email data, and 56 percent of those who run checks do so every four to five years.

Taylor advocates more frequent data-cleansing efforts, such as quarterly address verifications and at least an annual search of other vital information, including email addresses, phone numbers, and employment data.

Blackbaud was an attractive option for HCC because the college has an existing relationship with the company, James says. But several options exist in the market, including Relevate, CityTwist, and AlumniFinder.

James' verification regimen at HCC mirrors Taylor's recommendations. She says maintenance of the data costs about $2,000 annually. If you can't foot that kind of investment right now, Westchester's Fellas says that at the very least you should keep your email address book up-to-date.

"Email is fast, easy, and inexpensive. Small advancement shops—like the ones most community colleges have—can get more bang for the buck online than in the mail," he says.

5. Put your data to work

In 2013, WCC piloted a program called College Connections. Fellas and his colleagues dived into their database to identify recent graduates and other students who had transferred to four-year institutions. They recruited these individuals to become college advisers for current WCC students interested in those institutions. Fifty-five graduates answered Fellas' call, as did 60 WCC students. Fellas made 40 matches covering 25 colleges and universities. Once introduced, the students and alumni communicated with one another as they wished. College Connections will enter its second year in fall 2014, and WCC's transfer office now promotes the program in its literature.

At HCC, James' database helped revamp the college's annual giving program. One of her colleagues conducted research about giving tendencies among community college graduates. The report showed that alumni who had graduated at least 10 years ago were more likely to give than their younger counterparts. James used her database to identify older graduates in HCC's records and restrict her solicitations to that list.

"We went from mailing about 30,000 letters—nearly a third of our alumni records—to mailing about 2,000, and that's the high end. And we've increased our annual giving totals by up to $40,000 in recent years," James says. "Our return on investment has been huge. We were in the red before, but now we're making money off of these mailings. And it's all thanks to our data."

Measure your success

Fellas' administrators at WCC increased the alumni association's budget this past fiscal year. The reason: Fellas was able to pinpoint a correlation between his database and the college's improving fundraising figures, which earned WCC a 2013 CASE award for Sustained Excellence in Educational Fundraising. Targeted engagement programs helped bring graduates closer to the institution; in 2012–13, the annual fund saw a 40 percent increase in the number of alumni donors. Since 2011, when WCC established the alumni association and built its database, gifts to the annual fund have increased by 30 percent.

The fact that many community college advancement offices operate with small staffs and tight budgets is no secret, but Sheridan's Isakson argues that scant resources simply can't preclude a data-gathering effort. She's in the early stages of collecting and deepening the institution's pool of alumni data, and she's done so by focusing on her end goal and taking steps in that direction—no matter how tiny those steps may be.

"You have to start somewhere. Start small so you can get victories under your belt that can make the case to administrators to keep moving forward," she says. "If we continue investing in building this data, we'll have decades of good information to use to support the college. To me, that's worth it."

About the Author Kristin Simonetti

Kristin Simonetti is a former senior editor for CURRENTS.




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