James Stofan, Vice President for Alumni Relations at Tulane University, shares his thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more. This is the fifth post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- The way in which alumni engage with the university on digital platforms can provide a wealth of information not available from other metrics.
- With an alumni-first approach to engage alumni – not considering their giving levels – we can think in terms of including as many alumni as possible rather than excluding.
- Advancement offices should continuously be evaluating interactions with alumni to determine alumni needs and interests.
- Universities need to provide appropriate resources to alumni offices to deliver purposeful, relevant, and long-term alumni engagement that is both meaningful to alumni and leads to increased alumni participation and giving.
Jon Horowitz: Should universities be shifting toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations? Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?
James Stofan: Yes, Universities should be moving to a digital-first approach. Digital-first is an effective (and cost effective) way to reach alumni that can be done in “real time.” Digital can engage more alumni and alumni who can’t attend events due to location, time constraints, or other factors. Universities shouldn’t eliminate more traditional approaches as there are advantages to meeting face-to-face, but universities should be evaluating the ROI of their events using the Net Promoter Score tool. Digital and traditional programming can also be blended by things such as live-streaming events. Also, maintaining alumni traditions involving face-to-face events is important to alumni. This approach should be considered for both alumni relations and development in terms of alumni engagement.
JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
JS: Alumni traditions are important and alumni offices often hold the keys to these traditions. It is important to tap the emotional core these traditions create with our alumni, as well as passing them on to new alumni. The use of digital engagement can support and enhance these alumni traditions. Over time, some traditional engagement initiatives may be scaled back or complemented with digital engagement, but I see no reason they need to be totally eliminated.
JH: There’s an irony to making a case for digital engagement. Making that case often requires quantifiable information, yet that information comes from the very digital engagement systems and infrastructure being asked for. So how do digital engagement champions successfully pitch to leadership?
What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
JS: Universities have always measured giving and are now focusing on other areas of engagement, but many are still missing the “connect” metric. The way in which our alumni engage with the university on digital platforms can provide a wealth of information not available from other metrics. It can also help us find and discover “disengaged” alumni and identify alumni who can market our programs for us.
This approach is also totally strategic as alumni are engaged through the specific social media channels they use, increasing the probability that alumni will be more likely to engage. Being able to target market to our alumni allows staff to create content specific for these alumni. This also assures cost savings for staff time and increases the likelihood alumni will engage.
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy? Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
JS: Budget and staff are the two biggest barriers to new technology. These platforms can be costly and they require staff time to implement and manage. Many of these platforms also don’t “communicate” with one another, which can be a challenge. Universities should do a full audit of the technology they already have before moving forward with new technologies. I believe the transition from old technology is difficult simply because people struggle with change.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
JS: It is critical that there needs to be “one voice” coming from the university, whether from alumni relations or other units within advancement. Therefore, there need to be reporting relationships that in some cases overlap among the units, to assure the digital approach is consistent and coordinated. Also, in hiring it is critical that the new employees have the skills or are aware of the tools technology now provides to engage alumni.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
JS: I am fortunate to have a director of alumni engagement, Jesse Hartley, who comes from development. With that experience, she knows that an alumni-first approach offers an opportunity for alumni to feel valued. In the advancement world, alumni are put through stages during which they are essentially “ruled out” if they aren’t willing or able to give at that time. With her alumni-first approach to engage alumni – not considering their giving levels – we can think in terms of including as many alumni as possible rather than excluding. Alumni engagement initiatives achieve this process by matching alumni with the ways in which they want to give back to the university – whether it be volunteering to serve as a student mentor, sharing their university pride as a social media ambassador, or giving to the annual fund.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
JS: All advancement offices should be continuously evaluating interactions with alumni (e.g. Net Promoter Score) as we do in alumni relations to determine alumni needs and interests. We can also just listen when they tell us what they want.
JH: How can schools truly invest in alumni so that alumni genuinely want to invest in the schools? What can schools offer on this front?
JS: Universities need to understand that alumni want to be meaningfully engaged with their alma maters. They also need to understand that purposeful, relevant, and long-term alumni engagement leads to increased alumni giving. Therefore, universities need to provide appropriate resources to alumni offices to do the good work they need to do.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
JS: I see a continued movement towards increased collaborations between advancement offices, especially with development and alumni offices. I also see an increase in industry-related alumni groups online as well as offline to support career development of our alumni. Improved technology that allows for greater integration of data to support more strategic alumni engagement and cultivation. I also see email communications being less and less important to alumni engagement. I hopefully also see development offices understanding the importance and benefits of long-term alumni engagement.