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Loved, but Lost
Loved, but Lost

Are you asking, ‘Where’s Wally? Wendy? William?’ Here’s how to find your disconnected alumni.

By Robin L. Flanigan


JT Morrow

Lost alumniYour lost alumni have become untethered, drifting away from their beloved campus, and you're not sure how to bring them back. Some don't update contact information when they relocate; others ignore your correspondence because they think you only want money. Still others might like to reconnect but don't know how or are too busy to realize they haven't heard from you.

Search-and-rescue attempts aren't easy. Tight budgets don't help, nor do increasing numbers of graduates, many of whom hop jobs and locations early in their career. But even with these challenges, institutions are designing affordable, innovative campaigns for finding alumni who could become a valuable part of the college's mission. Here's what you can learn from them.

Turn data gathering into a game show

When Victor Valley College in California wanted to find missing alumni, it launched "The Great Alumni Hunt," modeled after the reality television show The Amazing Race.

Sixteen teams, each including at least one community member, a faculty or staff member, and a student intern (who earned college credit by working on the campaign), used their networks to seek out alumni. Rules prohibited participants from using the community college's database for leads. The teams competed in a series of weekly challenges (such as finding the alumnus who lives the farthest away) and checked in with members of the Victor Valley College Foundation to report results and collect points. The grand prize: a $2,500 scholarship for the intern on the team that found the most alumni. Runners-up received $500 scholarships.

During its 30-day run in October 2014, The Great Alumni Hunt turned up 1,157 lost alumni. Once the outreach started, connections multiplied—in one case, a newly found alumnus emailed his staff and discovered that 12 of the 15 people he employed had also attended the college.

The hunt, which won gold for innovative alumni programs in the 2015 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards, was as much about inspiring interest in the institution as it was about unearthing names, numbers, and addresses. "This was a powerful way to jump-start a reconnection" for the alumni found through the competition, says co-organizer Ginger Ontiveros, executive director of the Victor Valley College Foundation. "They were part of a movement to help students [earn scholarships], and they were changed by that experience. They liked us before—they love us now."

The Needles in the ‘Hey! Here we are!' stack

Other institutions narrow their outreach to the alumni who might be the most valuable to find. In 2011, South Carolina's Clemson University hired Maryland-based Waybetter Marketing to solicit email addresses for graduates from the past decade.

"For us, it was important to connect with young alumni," says Michele Cauley, senior marketing director in the Development and Alumni Relations Department. "If we don't find them now, we miss out on many more years of connecting."

The "Every Tiger Campaign," a reference to the university's mascot, snagged 4,123 updated email addresses. Five years ago, Clemson conducted 95 percent of its alumni communications by email, yet the university had valid addresses for only about half of its former students.

Waybetter created personalized print materials and microsites that asked known alumni to help find lost alumni. Alumni were asked to enter as many email addresses and names of their fellow alumni as they had so that Clemson could reconnect with them. Prizes were awarded each week to the alumnus who referred the most lost alumni to the institution. In addition, both the known alumni who helped out and their referred alumni were eligible for the grand prize: a pair of tickets to the final home football game.

Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania also focuses on recent graduates. Since 2014, a student leader has served as an alumni ambassador for his or her graduating class, acting as a conduit after graduation for sending and receiving information—such as event invitations and institution news—between class members and the college. The long-term plan is to have the ambassadors act as fundraisers on the college's behalf.

"Hearing a message from a fellow classmate, as opposed to hearing from someone who works for the school, gets a better response," says Doug Ferguson, director of alumni programs.

But not all institutions focus solely on young alumni. Ashland University is making a concerted effort to reach out through social media to graduates from the 1950s and 1960s, "pivotal years from a donor perspective" because alumni are thinking about retirement and estate planning, says Matt Gullatta, director of advancement services at the Ohio institution. In 2015, Ashland received a grant from the National Educational Alumni Trust to measure its "forgotten" alumni rate and re-engage with those who could be found. Staff and students combed through yearbooks and student records, searched LexisNexis and other online sources, and verified locations on social media. The result: 1,186 new names from 36 states and five countries.

"We're only as good as the people we bring back," Gullatta says. The university experienced significant growth throughout the past few decades—including a new athletic complex, a new college of nursing, and a name change in 1989 from Ashland College. Engaging with graduates from the 1950s and 1960s provides an invaluable historical perspective, Gullatta says. "We can look at raw numbers, but getting a feel for what the university used to be like is not something you can track in a database. It helps define who we are and who we should be in the future."

Get them hooked before they go

Developing a relationship before graduation is a good way to track students once they leave campus—a top priority for many institutions. Georgia Gwinnett College is testing an online form that asks winter graduates to provide contact details, which will be entered into a fundraising software program. A 2012 study from Canada's Dalhousie University showed that the longer it took an alumnus to make a gift, the lower that person's lifetime value to the institution, says Kevin MacDonell, Dalhousie's associate director of advancement data and analysis and co-author of the recent CASE book Score! Data-driven Success for Your Advancement Team.

The study, using a cohort that graduated between 1987 and 1991, found that alumni who gave within the first 12 months after earning a degree have higher lifetime giving, on average, than donors who start giving later—even by just one year. Alumni who gave within the first 12 months of graduation had an average lifetime giving amount of nearly $1,500. Those whose first gift came more than a year but less than five years afterward gave a little more than $1,200 over their lifetime; alumni who waited more than five years but less than 10 years gave $600, and the value keeps declining from there.

"If we could improve results when their feelings for us are still fresh and warm," MacDonell says, "I suspect we'd have a better chance of not losing contact in the first place."

What's in it for me?

You've come up with an amazing campaign, but how do you coax those lost alumni out of hiding? If you want folks to provide their contact information, try rewarding them.

The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., acquired 250 new international email and postal addresses when it offered goody bags filled with sweatshirts, hats, water bottles, and other merchandise that soon would be outdated because of a rebranding effort. To the alumni staff's surprise, graduates responded quickly. After the 70 goody bags were claimed, GW sent a keychain with its new logo to the rest of the respondents.

Australia's Southern Cross University offered an iPad2 during its 2012 Lost Member Campaign, which used targeted advertising on LinkedIn and Facebook to entice alumni to activate their membership. At the time, the university was in regular contact with only 11,000 of its 46,000 former students. The campaign yielded 1,125 membership activations (a small percentage of them renewals) in three months. Total cost: $7,770, or around $7 per member.

That's a low-cost investment for what could become a rich relationship, and not just in financial contributions. Reconnections can lead to valuable opportunities for both the institution and current students. In the first month of the campaign, Southern Cross reconnected with 442 alumni, about 86 percent of whom had not had any previous contact. It reignited a relationship with Ich Seng, chancellor and founder of Cambodian Mekong University in Cambodia. Southern Cross students now complete short-term internships and exchanges at CMU.

The campaign also found Gregory Prior, deputy director-general of schools for the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, who completed his master's degree at Southern Cross in 1995. He now works with the institution's School of Education on several projects, including advocating for graduate students' professional experiences to be counted as credit toward their degree. In 2012, Prior was honored as Southern Cross' Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.

Southern Cross' campaign is now an annual event that offers incentives not only for lost alumni to reconnect but also for current alumni to refer lost classmates.

Social media is your BFF

Tracking down lost alumni gets trickier when former students are from—or move to—other countries. "For us, it's a huge problem, because in general anyone who leaves their country, for whatever reason, is often going to be more transient," says Mansoor Ali, associate director of international alumni programs at GW. Ali says that more than 10,000 GW alumni live internationally and estimates that 2,000 more are unidentified. He uses LinkedIn and Facebook ads to find prospects. If someone whose details aren't updated in the GW system registers for an event in Paris, for instance, he concludes that the person lives in France. Through a little research, mostly on LinkedIn, he confirms the person's location and enters his or her details into the database. That alumnus will then receive invitations to future events in France. Facebook ads that ask graduates to "like" GW's page also turn up lost alumni.

Arizona State University reached more than 200,000 graduates through Facebook advertising. Its 2012 Alumni Reconnect Campaign generated 1,789 record updates and boosted its Facebook page's overall engagement rate from 10 to 22 percent.

When the lost stay lost

Sometimes, despite careful planning and a smooth execution, a creative idea just doesn't work—especially if alumni aren't used to hearing from their alma mater on a regular basis. That was the case for the University of North Texas when it introduced its Six Degrees of UNT program in 2008. Based on the six degrees of separation theory, the idea for the six-week program was to invite alumni via email to connect with the university and then to forward the invitation to former classmates, faculty, staff, and supporters. Those subsequent emails asked for current contact information. Results were disappointing, according to Kim Wendt Collinsworth, assistant vice president of donor relations and advancement services, because the alumni base wasn't used to email communications from UNT.

Results improved after UNT hired Blackbaud, a South Carolina-based supplier of software and services to nonprofit organizations. The institution now runs reports to update email addresses and flag invalid ones. UNT has also increased interactive emails and social media posts to keep alumni engaged. The campaign #UNTLove, for example, asked alumni who met their significant other at UNT—or those who simply love UNT—to share their love story.

"It's all about plugging away when you're trying to find lost alumni," GW's Ali says, "because you'll find a few gems who will ultimately give a huge gift."

Finders, keepers

Ultimately, maintaining a strong connection with alumni is more about relationships than the number of records in your database.

Mike Nutter was new to the Victor Valley College Foundation's board of directors when he joined The Great Alumni Hunt. "It not only helped me re-engage with acquaintances and friends I hadn't spoken to for years," he says, "but it gave me a better understanding of our mission and purpose." Nutter, who led the winning team by tracking down 454 names, hosted a phone bank at his office over two evenings. He created a script; recruited a dozen business associates to call leads he'd generated from friends, family, and his network; and provided pizza and refreshments to keep callers motivated. He requested that each associate reach out to 12 to 14 people in each two-hour session, then broke his own rule after losing track of time while on a call with a woman from the college's first graduating class. She had seen the foundation's newspaper ad about the competition and was eager to participate.

"We were on the phone for about an hour," he says. "I closed my office door because I didn't want anyone to realize [I hadn't called anyone else]." A little rule-breaking works if it brings together friends and builds new memories. Those are the kinds of connections that never get lost.

About the Author Robin L. Flanigan

Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer living in Rochester, New York. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers as well as in several anthologies.




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