Ryan Rodrigues, Associate Vice-Principal (Alumni Relations & Annual Giving), Queen’s University, shares his thoughts on engagement, technology, analytics, staffing, and more. This is the eighth post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- Institutions need to own a digital-first advancement strategic vision and mission, and leadership in advancement in alumni relations has a key role to play in making this change
- As alumni populations become more geographically diverse, it is imperative for a digital-first approach to ensure that we are continually engaging alumni despite the vast number of countries or regions they inhabit
- We must look outside of our individual institutions—including other schools, business verticals, and our digital platform providers—to demonstrate the proof to their success through case studies
- If we do subscribe to a digital-first, customer-focused approach, or donor-centric approach to our advancement and alumni relations activities, then it stands to reason that our metrics and data points should be able to direct us as to what engagement efforts are lacking and where cuts or readjustments to resource allocation should be made
- Creating a culture that embraces digital and a more nimble workforce with an open attitude toward testing digital engagement will lead to greater innovation and success in the fields of alumni relations and advancement
Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations? Why or why not?
Ryan Rodrigues: I do believe that universities should shift towards a digital first approach for both advancement and alumni relations. Since the advent of the internet the adoption rates of new media and new technologies to service consumers has continued to rise. I don’t think there’s any going back from a digital-first environment and associated approach.
With growing alumni populations that are increasingly mobile and global, we need to be able to reach people in a cost effective and scalable manner. Students on our campuses today are increasingly more digitally literate and are looking to engage with organizations and their alma maters in a digital format when they are ready to engage.
‘Always on’ is a mindset of consumers today. We need our universities to provide services around the clock—and a digital-first approach is the only way to do this effectively.
Moreover to this, the exponential growth in alumni populations over the last number of decades makes the pressures on traditional budgets for alumni relations and advancement untenable at this pace.
As alumni populations become more geographically diverse in terms of locations lived around the globe, I believe it is imperative for a digital-first approach to ensure that we are continually engaging alumni despite the vast number of countries or regions of the world they inhabit.
JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?
RR: I do believe that it’s worth examining all aspects of engagement currently deployed by traditional institutions. I think after a thorough analysis both on our return investment basis but also an ROE (return on engagement) case that those underperforming areas must be questioned and some of which curtailed in the view of testing new things. Engagement today is being measured differently at a number of institutions globally. I don’t believe there is one accurate or agreed-upon measurement of engagement. This seems to be the holy grail we are all in search of. If we do subscribe to a digital-first, customer-focused approach or donor-centric approach to our advancement and alumni relations activities, then it stands to reason that our metrics and data points should be able to direct us as to what engagement efforts are lacking and where cuts or readjustments to resource allocation should be made. We have already seen examples of schools changing the way their traditional fundraising call centers or direct mail programs operate. By continually testing our hypotheses and our decisions of the past, we will continue to evolve and iterate in the right way and keep pace with the changing customer base and donor base.
JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
RR: In terms of types of more traditional engagement that could be looked at for change in order to allocate more resources to digital engagement initiatives, I would suggest looking at print magazine runs that continue to grow as postage rates increase. I would also look at traditional call centers and how they currently are used for fundraising and engagement in looking at potentially changing those to a focused engagement and stewardship function. I also think that global branch events could be looked at in terms of how they are staffed and who they are attracting in terms of attendance. Moreover to these indicators it is also very important to step back and look at the bigger and longer term picture of engagement and constantly question where our current traditional engagement efforts are falling short. Before getting rid of these traditional engagement forums we must ask if we are doing the correct follow-up and tweaking to these models which were once deemed innovative in their own right.
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?
RR: Like in any aspect of life, it’s good to have friends. Professional associations and professional networks can assist in gaining access to data and experience from other institutions that have taken more aggressive steps or directions to adopt digital technologies at a more rapid pace than our institution. Therefore, there is learning and quantifiable information to be shared. We can also look outside of traditional academy and look to other verticals in business such as new media, technology, banking, retail, and other consumer goods companies to learn from their experience with data.
We can also look to vendors and sellers of digital platforms to demonstrate the proof to their efforts through case studies or references.
JH: What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
RR: The leading indicators or metrics that would assist our institution in making a case for a digital approach to advancement would be on a growth in revenue side (fundraising totals), followed by the effect on our people and culture (employee satisfaction surveys, retention rates), and finally the effects on our processes through technology enablement (departmental efficiencies and increased security).
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
RR: One of the obstacles I believe that schools face in terms of technology implementation are the legacy cost or sticking costs that are associated with current systems and the history from staff who our committed to leveraging the current technology. People are attached to systems they work with and the change process is difficult for those involved.
Another thing I have seen at a number of institutions that I’ve had the pleasure of serving are that people tend to customize systems and integrate them with their people processes. I believe this further exacerbates the challenge of change management, especially information technology (IT) and information systems (IS) related systems because of the customization and people process development that has taken time and thought in the past. People fear the unknown, and they fear the changes both to the people process as well as the IT and IS processes.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
RR: Some of my previous response gets to the difficulty in terms of transition or changing out data sets as older systems tend not to easily transfer or connect to newer systems and as a result create a sticking point (e.g. unknown risks) or sticking cost to the change.
I believe organizations are also afraid to lose data despite having hundreds of times more data than they likely know what to do with. There is still an inherent fear of losing system data from legacy systems.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
RR: I think institutions need to own a digital-first advancement strategic vision and mission. I believe that leadership in advancement in alumni relations has a key role to play in making this change. I believe that creating a culture that embraces digital and a more nimble workforce with an attitude towards trial and error and testing digital engagement will lead to greater innovation and success in the fields of alumni relations and advancement going forward.
Further, with the advent of new machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence applications to our work, we need to ensure that we are investing in our people’s professional development. We need a workforce that is ready to manage and lead in a whole new way than in the past when it comes to digital engagement. With a digital-first approach so too must come a greater understanding and appreciation for a digital customer engagement mindset.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
RR: If you look at the Fortune 500 companies and look at average employee tenure you will see that Eastman Kodak has the longest tenure of employees, with an average of around 20 years, while tech startups and the biggest companies in the world (namely Apple and Google) are between two and five years in terms of their employee tenure. I believe that an alumni-first approach to advancement would have a similar result. I believe that another effect would be a younger workforce more attuned to and comfortable with technology adaptation. This is not to say that individuals with more experience would not be valued, but it is to say that those that were less likely to change from a ‘traditional advancement’ mentality might find themselves of lesser value to an organization. Disruption does not see age, and no one is immune to digital disruption.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
RR: Universities and colleges have access to a number of data points that can assist in determining alumni needs and interests. For example, most every university and college looks at graduation rates and employment rates of its graduates. After all, this is the ‘proof in the pudding.’ If institutions keep a close eye out on labor market trends they will know that a specific percentage of their alumni population is unemployed or underemployed, so services like career services, coaching, alumni mentoring, and networking could be targeted to those individuals looking for better employment.
Furthermore, there is an employment churn happening for older workers—some refer to this as a second career, happening later in life for individuals 50 to 60 years of age. I believe that a digital-first strategy to address these alumni looking for second career work might lead to special programming, skills development, and continuing education offerings for the lifelong learner and individuals who would like to retool for a changing workforce.
Becoming more useful and of greater utility to our alumni populations is a digital-first imperative. Access to information is becoming increasingly easy; however, the world is challenged in determining the truth, fact, or quality of an ever-growing source of online content. This is where reputable institutions with a visible brand recognition such as university or college have a distinct advantage and a unique value proposition.
Surveying our audiences has also become more viable and this must be done in a strategic and respectable way to garner the trust of our alumni so they can tell us directly how they would like to be serviced.
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?
RR: I believe that students today come to schools with the desire to learn and to receive an education that will make them job ready. If institutions fail on this promise to their customers their customers will not be invested. Conversely if alumni relations shops are able to assist in career services, networking, and creating greater access to jobs and job mobility, I truly believe that this will be reciprocated and alumni will invest in the schools that have gotten them to where they are.
I further believe that alumni relations offices can do a better job of linking efforts that the university has offered to students and therefore building up a greater relationship and understanding of the institution’s role in getting students through to alumni who are successful in their fields.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
RR: I believe the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement will be giving students access through podcasts or some type of online continuing education access to their favorite professors for their lifetime. I truly believe that each student going through high school, university, or college forms strong relationships and bonds with a small handful of faculty who are indeed mentors, teachers, sponsors, role models, and friends.
If alumni relations and advancement offices are able to leverage the power of these relationship to their customers in a scalable way they will succeed. I have seen this happen on a smaller scale at a number of institutions that I have worked at. There are professors whose popularity and research areas drive attendance at alumni events and philanthropic efforts at the institution. When I extrapolate this and think about the new ways of connecting people—I see a great opportunity and trend. As our alumni are becoming more comfortable with online and digital engagement so too will they become more open to engaging with their alma maters in this way. I truly believe this is the golden nugget trend that our institutions need to leverage.