When advancement professionals talk about data, they often talk about benchmarking. It may be a business-speak buzzword, but benchmarking is exceedingly valuable for those seeking comparative insights between their institution and others in education.
It’s the first word out of Pamela Clark’s mouth when she begins discussing Delta College’s long-running participation in CASE’s Voluntary Survey of Education Survey. Clark, the executive director of institutional advancement, is proud that the community college in University Center, Michigan, has taken part in the VSE every year since 1997.
“Way back when, there weren’t many community colleges doing the VSE,” she says, noting that participation in the two-year sector has grown. “But we wanted to show we were a great college because our community support us. You want to be able to benchmark against others. The only way to do that is through this survey.”
Clark College, in Vancouver, Washington, also began submitting data for the VSE more than two decades ago and has been a consistent participant for the past 15 years, according to Lisa Gibert, CEO of the Clark College Foundation.
“I’ve always believed in benchmarking. I’m a CPA by trade, so I’m a geek when it comes to numbers,” says Gibert, who likes using the survey to benchmark the college’s fundraising against both two-year and four-year institutions. “Who better to learn from than the big boys? The only difference between us and them is a few zeroes.”
While the VSE has been tabulating fundraising for a range of U.S. educational institutions for more than 60 years, a more recent AMAtlas survey has an even broader scope. The Alumni Engagement Metrics Survey began in 2019, with an eye toward quantifying alumni engagement (whether voluntary, philanthropic, experiential, and communicative) on a global scale. The AEM survey was the result of years of planning by CASE, AMAtlas, and a volunteer AEM task force.
Cheri Beda, alumni director at Central Community College in Nebraska, first learned about the new AEM survey at last year’s CASE Conference for Community College Advancement. She says she was intrigued by the idea of a survey with a global reach and Central’s opportunity to share about its relationship with alumni—which has been historically overlooked in the community college space.
“By doing this, it shows we do have alumni,” Beda says. “They do communicate with us. Community college does matter. There’s such a negative opinion about alumni at community colleges.”
She says that part of Central’s drive to participate in the inaugural version of the survey was that the college had recently organized all of its alumni data. Taking part in AEM was a significant way to make use of it.
Many who participate in the VSE also reference the internal benefits surrounding fundraising data. Delta’s Clark says that her college’s annual participation in the VSE helps her team with data hygiene.
“It has forced us to do data-based cleanup,” she says. “All gifts must be noted in certain ways. All data entry is cleaner because we know we have to do the report. It helps to have those guidelines.”
Clark also talks about how VSE results are a way of displaying the value of advancement’s role for institutional leadership. Gibert says the case is the same when she communicates with the Clark College Foundation Board about what the foundation is doing, or what it is not.
“I look to the VSE to tell me the basics for working with my board and make sure we’re staying current,” she says. “If I’m advocating for a policy change, it’s not just ‘Lisa getting creative.’ We can make sure we’ve been proactive, putting to use best practices while making sure the dollars are being well spent.”
Both Gibert and Clark speak to the learning opportunities that the VSE has afforded them. If another college reports having success in a certain segment of fundraising, it might inspire their institutions to try something similar.
“The survey is important for anybody who wants to grow, expand, and understand where you’re at right now,” Clark says. “You need to understand where you are before you can grow. It opens your eyes to find out where others have done better than you and you can find out what they’re doing. And then you can share ideas.”
Central’s Beda talks about her hope that the AEM survey, now in its second year, will continue to grow and provide similar insights that her fundraising colleagues gain from the VSE.
“I think it can establish a baseline of our alumni who are engaging with us. It can be a starting point for another college who hasn’t focused on this,” she says. “I hope it establishes the high and low ends, and where there’s room for improvement. I even think our relationship with government can improve. If they’re cutting budgets, this can show how important we are to our alumni communities.”
Beda is set to again take part in this year’s survey (which includes a minimal version) and fill out portions where Central did not yet have data last fall. She’s also hoping to make use of the Graphic Program Summary Reports, which provide a visual representation of survey data and are available as a result of participation in either the AEM or VSE.
Gibert and Clark also want to make use of their institutions’ GPS Reports to help them identify areas for improvement. Both say their colleges are participating in the VSE this year. Gibert acknowledges the time commitment necessary for this, but encourages her community college peers to participate, especially given the short-form version that is available. Clark agrees.
“Of all the years to consider it, maybe it’s best to just do it now,” she says. “It can seem overwhelming if you haven’t participated before, but there’s no better time, because it’s always busy. You could wait forever to get all of your data 100% perfect, but when you participate, you discover what you need to do to improve.”
How to Participate
Visit the Voluntary Support of Education Survey’s webpage to get started with the VSE. For questions or more information, contact CASE’s AMAtlas research team at [email protected]. The deadline for participation is October 1, but institutions can reply later in the calendar year via email.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is the communications manager at Harper College. He is a former content creator at CASE.