In 2019, Adam Dunigan joined Franklin College’s advancement team as Senior Director of Advancement Services and Analytics, after working in information systems at the Indiana, U.S., college for nearly a decade. One of his immediate goals was to create a dashboard to gauge alumni activities—part of the college’s effort to intentionally measure alumni engagement.
Dunigan and his team identified engagement touchpoints, tracked them in Franklin’s CRM, and ultimately created an interactive, real-time dashboard to capture and help advancement staff understand the impact of alumni activities.
To guide this data dashboard work, Franklin’s team used CASE’s white paper on Alumni Engagement Metrics, which had just been released at that time. The white paper drove the launch of the AEM survey in 2020, designed to look at the broad impact of relationships between alumni and their alma maters. The survey measures engagement across four “modes” beyond the traditionally used metric of giving rates.
“The giving rate metric only tells a small part of the story,” says CASE President and CEO Sue Cunningham. In developing the survey, she says, “We wanted to look deeper—to consider what specifically constitutes alumni engagement and how we as a profession might assess this important work thoughtfully and quantitatively.”
Now, as CASE’s Global Alumni Engagement Metrics survey enters its fourth year of data collection, advancement teams like Franklin’s are building collaboration through data, assessing their programs, and quantifying the value of alumni engagement.
The Mark of a Profession
Measurable outcomes, standardization, and a set of common terms and definitions are marks of a true profession. But alumni relations hasn’t historically had those common terms, explains Bernhard Toh, Head of Alumni Relations at National University of Singapore.
“Alumni relations is essentially a relationship business,” says Toh. “For a very long time now, those of us who work in this business encountered and experienced great difficulties in clearly articulating the outcomes of the good work that we all do in keeping our alumni well engaged. Even between alumni relations practitioners, we had different measures and yardsticks, and this made it difficult to have meaningful professional conversations.”
To address this need, CASE’s Commission on Alumni Relations in 2016 appointed a task force to develop an industry-wide framework. The group was comprised of alumni relations and advancement services leaders from across the globe. The task force would help build on CASE’s work to set the standards for advancement through data collection, analytics, and benchmarking. CASE conducts regional philanthropy surveys that provide key benchmarks to inform and guide the profession, and through the addition of the AEM survey, alumni relations and engagement join this family of data and analysis.
An important first step for the committee was coming to consensus on definitions and categories, says Donna Arbide, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., U.S., who chaired the commission at the time and served on the task force. Historically, alumni engagement has been measured by giving rates, while the many other ways alumni bring value to their alma maters has been valued anecdotally. Arbide and her fellow volunteers came up with 100-plus activities that happen around alumni engagement, focusing on actions that could be measured consistently and be applicable for institutions of all sizes around the globe. They organized these into four categories—philanthropic, volunteerism, experiential, and communication. Those dimensions underpinned the task force’s 2018 white paper and the first AEM survey, piloted in 2019 and launched in 2020.
Looking at engagement across multiple dimensions is key, says Susan Farrington, Director of Alumni Relations at Tyler Junior College in Texas, U.S., which has participated in the survey each year.
“Alumni programs create engaged communities of advocates, donors, volunteers, mentors, people who bring internships and career opportunities, and fans that fill stadiums,” says Farrington. “Yet alumni relations programs have historically taken a back seat to the more easily demonstrated ROI [return on investment] of development. Both need to exist and be properly resourced. Having metrics allows for more thoughtful conversations with college leadership and with our advancement colleagues.”
Integrated Advancement and Beyond
For advancement teams, collecting and exploring alumni data together can build collaboration.
Cindy Shaw, Director of the Haverford Fund at The Haverford School in Pennsylvania, U.S., says that was the case when her team began gathering data for the AEM survey. The school’s philanthropic and volunteer data could be easily exported from its database. Collecting event registration and attendee information for reporting on experiential engagement proved more challenging.
“Now, we are working more closely as a team to consistently gather event data,” says Shaw. “Collaborating in this way will improve the confidence level we assign the data we submit and, ultimately, provide better metrics for decision-making.”
AEM survey participants consistently report that collecting data fosters integration both within advancement divisions and with partners across campus. This positive outcome reinforces how advancement is most effective when teams look beyond their individual specialties to complement, inform, and support one another. The survey takes that even a step further: Data collection can also lead to collaboration with so many other divisions that interact with alumni such as academics, libraries, athletics, and career services.
The alumni relations team at CETYS Universidad in Mexico prioritizes those working relationships with colleagues outside of advancement and has found that collecting data has enhanced those efforts.
“Now our outreach is more precise, more fine-tuned,” says Gisel Jiménez González, System Director for Alumni Relations. “We have specific questions and goals in our interactions. When you are asking for data from your deans and other [divisions] like career services, it’s nice if you can give them something back in return. In the past, they’ve only had an understanding of specific limited engagements within their departments. Now we can show them how that fits into the whole of alumni relations across the university.”
Beyond that, collecting alumni data can reveal engagement or activity that’s happening outside the advancement office, says Emily Olibo, Director of Alumni Relations and Campus Partnerships at Franklin College.
“We are engaging more effectively with faculty and other staff who invite alumni to campus, like the business professor who is hosting a shark tank event in the classroom with alumni judges. Now I offer incentives to them for letting us know when they are hosting alumni, such as small, branded gifts they can give to speakers and branded notecards for thank you notes. For bigger events, we offer to handle the logistics.”
The result of this is not just better coordination across campus among those who engage with alumni, but a more seamless experience for alumni themselves.
“With so much being asked of us these days, both in higher education and within advancement, metrics provide clarity as we set priorities and strategies."
Putting Data to Use
The CASE Global Reporting Standards define how important it is for alumni professionals to “develop programs that are valued by alumni; build enduring and mutually beneficial relationships, inspire loyalty, volunteerism, and financial support; strengthen the institution’s reputation; and involve alumni in meaningful activities to advance the institution’s mission.”
The new AEM framework gives advancement teams the power to quantify the value of this work and the importance of investing in staff to support those efforts.
For instance, the data can help advancement teams use metrics to support what they might know anecdotally: how volunteer engagement leads to giving. AEM data indicate that alumni who volunteer are more likely to give than those who don’t.
At Franklin College, the AEM survey prompted the team to consider the correlation of volunteering and giving, explains Dunigan. CASE survey participants can receive a tailored Graphical Program Summary report, and Franklin’s 2020 and 2021 reports showed that 68% to 70% of volunteers gave. So the college set a goal to raise that number by offering more ways to volunteer. It adopted Almabase, an alumni database, which it branded as Franklin College Connect—a one-stop online platform for alumni to network with one another and easily find volunteer opportunities that meet their interests.
Understanding and expanding volunteer engagement was also a goal for The Haverford School. Data revealed that the school had a group of alumni that was giving at the leadership level but not volunteering or attending events.
“Using our survey data, we were able to identify a group of alumni that was demonstrating a commitment to the school through financial support. We wondered why these alumni were not engaged in the experiential or volunteer modes,” says Shaw. “We knew that their attendance at events would help to build community and their service as volunteers would be valuable to the school. We thanked the group for their philanthropic support at a leadership level and, to increase their engagement, we sent personalized invitations for upcoming events. And, when seats opened up on committees, we asked these alumni to consider serving in a volunteer role.
The school also took note of one of the most profound findings in the survey: alumni who receive multiple credentials from an institution engage at higher rates in all four modes. In an independent school context, that means students who spend more years at the school might engage more.
“We are considering how we might target, message, and steward alumni who attended from Pre-K or Kindergarten through Form VI, a group we refer to as ‘lifers,’ differently than alumni who attended Haverford for a shorter period,” says Shaw.
Like Haverford, the George Washington University alumni team has put data to use to explore segments of alumni engagement. It built a data-collection dashboard around the AEM categories and definitions, and also found segments of alumni who give but don’t volunteer or attend events.
“We knew [those alumni] could enrich our community through engagement beyond giving,” says Arbide. “We made an all-out effort to target those groups, and we did so in conjunction with our bicentennial celebration as the hook.”
GW added 400 new volunteers by targeting that group with invitations to volunteer throughout the eight-month bicentennial celebration from February through October 2021, which culminated in the “Our Moment, Our Momentum: the GW Centuries Celebration Weekend,” in Washington, D.C.
Arbide is quick to point out that these kinds of targeting efforts need to be done in lockstep with development colleagues. Most notably, that meant bringing gift officers into the conversations around strategy for targeting their assigned donors.
“We were very respectful of existing relationships and coordinated our outreach,” she says.
AEM data can also help make the case for investing in advancement staff. For instance, at Tyler Junior College, Farrington was in discussions with her leadership about building up the alumni relations team when the most recent AEM report was released in summer 2022. Two findings caught her attention: 75% of all colleges and universities have a data manager or a data team, and investing more resources in staffing correlates to a higher volume of engagement.
“I had the opportunity to share these data points in a position request and in a report to my college leadership. I have been making these points internally but now had supporting metrics,” Farrington says.
Ultimately, alumni engagement metrics can offer guidance and clarity for advancement teams. At GW, there’s an old adage Arbide and her team like to bring up when making data-driven decisions: “What gets measured, gets done.”
“With so much being asked of us these days, both in higher education and within advancement, metrics provide clarity as we set priorities and strategies,” she says.
Arbide says she is excited to see how the AEM survey is already making inroads in the alumni relations profession she loves. As she sees the work getting done in more strategic ways, she mentions a gratifying byproduct: “Leadership at our university is taking notice. Metrics lead to better accountability, and with that comes a heightened level of trust from them in what we do.”
The Alumni Engagement Metrics Task Force identified four primary modes of alumni engagement:
- Volunteer—Formally defined and rewarding volunteer roles that are endorsed and valued by the institution and supports its mission and strategic goals. Examples of volunteer engagement include governing or advisory board members; student recruitment career mentors; public advocates; and classroom speakers.
- Experiential—Meaningful experiences that inspire alumni, are valued by the institution, promote its mission, celebrate its achievements, and strengthen its reputation.
- Philanthropic—Diverse opportunities for alumni to make philanthropic investments that are meaningful to the donor and support the institution’s mission and strategic goals.
- Communication—Interactive, meaningful, and informative communication with alumni that supports the institution’s mission, strategic goals, and reputation.
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