When it comes to students, education institutions seem to understand the principles of charging for a quality service. However when it comes to engaging alumni, they seem to lose their way when it comes to alumni membership.
I am surprised that many schools I speak with, particularly outside of continental Europe, still do not charge their alumni membership dues to be part of their network and organization.
Yes, I understand that students have already paid when they were on campus, and typically a significant minority will continue to make donations once they graduate. I also understand that this also touches on a separate issue about the independence of alumni associations. But for many schools, it is clear that the majority of alumni do not pay anything.
Chris Marshall, Vice President at Grenzebach Glier and Associates, confirmed for me recently that in his view the vast majority of US institutions do not charge alumni to be members and the number of dues paying alumni associations is actually shrinking each year.
This in my view does not sound like a healthy way to build a vibrant alumni community. The question is why should alumni membership be ‘free’? And is the fact that it is free causing disengagement?
Let’s look at the for-profit world for an alternative model.
What do you think as a consumer when someone offers you a free product? Is this something that you typically value over the long term? Normally if you do value it, then you are prepared to pay for the product either with money or with your data and time (e.g. Facebook, YouTube). One way or another you pay something.
Moreover I don’t think organizations that have a quality alumni product need to fear charging for access to it.
L’Oreal and Stella Artois are two brands that I admire that have done an outstanding job in positioning themselves as quality premium products.
Were consumers scared off by L’Oreal’s ‘Because I am worth it’ slogan or Stella’s ‘Reassuringly expensive’? Absolutely not. On the contrary it helped build their trust and value score.
Consumers are smart and over the long term will give their loyalty and support to those companies who provide and yes, charge for a quality offering.
In the for-profit world, ‘free’ is rarely valued, and I think in the not-for-profit world, we have a similar outcome.
My hypothesis here is that consistently charging all alumni membership dues, could be a driver of greater engagement.
Buy-in comes from those who have ‘skin in the game’. A trusted and exclusive network would probably be even more appreciated and valued if all alumni actually were asked to pay a fee to be part of that network. When you tell your alumni that being a member is ‘free’, what are you communicating about your brand?
Moreover, by charging alumni, we start to put a healthy focus on the value proposition offered by schools to their alumni. Is your school offering a sufficiently strong value offering to your alumni to justify charging, and if not, what is missing?
Finally, I think in addition to greater alumni engagement and participation, the idea that the alumni association should be funded not just by a few wealthy donors but my the alumni mass, brings a healthy dose of democratization to the running of schools.
In summary, this may be the proverbial chicken and egg question. Schools need to probably have both better engaging alumni and in parallel to potentially charge for them. What do you think?
Do you think all alumni should be charged dues to be a member of the network?
Do you have experience of introducing alumni dues and what was the impact on participation and alumni engagement rates afterwards?
To what extent do schools need to change their value offering and engagement programs to be able to justify charging alumni?
I would welcome your thoughts.