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Is The Alumni Relations Profession Being Hijacked?

Is The Alumni Relations Profession Being Hijacked?

Every now and again one comes across something so profound that you must implore your colleagues in the alumni profession to see and hear it for themselves.

The interview by Robert Curtis (VP Graduway) of Christine Fairchild, (Director of Alumni Relations at the University of Oxford) and Howard Wolf, (Vice President for Alumni Affairs at Stanford University) fits into that category.

The interview entitled, “The Alumni Relations Profession – Where Exactly Are We Headed?” was held at Oxford University on the 11th November at the Global Leaders Summit (GLS) – the gathering of the world’s Alumni Relations executives.

Christine and Howard bravely outline exactly where they think the alumni profession is headed.  Please watch the full footage below.



Let me try and summarize the three key trends that were raised:

1.  Dealing With Disintermediation And Deepening The Value Proposition – the growth of social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn continue to make the role of Alumni Relations no longer the central conduit that it once was.  (Also worth watching Andrew Gossen’s keynote from GLS 2014 on the subject of disintermediation).  In response to disintermediation, schools need to show their impact beyond ‘bums on seats’ at events and think more about the contribution towards the strategic goals of the institution i.e. recruiting top students, improving employment, and creating worthy ambassadors.

No longer can schools be seen as glorified party organizers.

2.  A Maniacal Focus On Return On Investment (ROI) – Boards of Trustees sometimes see the University through the lens of a business.  Should a University really be run like a business?  Universities are not businesses, and alumni offices are not businesses.  Certainly, they need to be run in a more business-like manner but they should not be run like a business.  The implication of running an alumni association only as a business would be to identify alumni who are most involved and put disproportionate resources behind them.  The flip side would be even more alarming – to write off those who will never be ‘involved’.  Why would you keep talking to customers that are never going to buy your product?

In short, if schools were only a business, Alumni Relations would only put resources on people that will provide an ROI.

But that is not the business that alumni offices are in.  Boards run by successful business people don’t seem to get it?

Alumni Relations is about building a community.  About the need to engage all alumni irrespective of their desire, willingness or ability to give.

3.  Alumni Relations Being Subjugated to Development – there has been a degradation in the perceived value of Alumni Relations and that its only value is as a means to an end, and that end is financial giving.  Part of this trend is driven by the fact that on average University Presidents are only in their role for 7 years and one of the few things that can bear fruit as a metric during their term is giving.

It feels like Alumni Relations and higher education generally are being hijacked.

This trend is particularly acute in US public institutions where Alumni Relations offices are becoming a division of the development office and subjugated to their goals. This will ultimately mean that we really are only reaching out to our alumni for one reason.

Christine and Howard boldly describe exactly where we are headed unless the profession can start to better communicate its value.

I would like to conclude with an Apple analogy that Howard provided which I think was particularly telling.

Apple spends billions of dollars each year, not in selling a particular product but selling the concept of being part of the Apple family.  Often there is no clear ROI on this expenditure.  Consumers once bought into the Apple brand, go on to participate and purchase various Apple products.

Imagine that Alumni Relations is the Corporate Brand Marketing arm of your organization.  If Alumni Relations is no longer its own division, and simply reports into the development head, then your role becomes one of supporting the specific divisional product – and that product is giving.

Alumni are already distrustful of outreach from Universities – believing everything has a fundraising agenda even when this is not the case.

As a profession, we need to stand up for our constituents.

The relationship with alumni must be bi-directional.  It must not be about just how alumni can help their alma mater.  In fact, there is a long term risk that the combination of these three trends is endangering and undermining the alumni loyalty to our institutions that took generations to build.

Alumni Relations needs to be advocating for the long term game – the one of building a life-long loyal community.

Where do you think the alumni profession is headed?

Do you agree with the thoughts expressed by Christine and Howard or do you think they over-state the risk?

Do you think there are other critical trends facing the alumni profession?

Finally, how do you think Alumni Relations professionals can better communicate their value?

I would welcome your thoughts.

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