A few times every month, I receive an email or Linkedin message with a request to check out a new web-based platform. There are several amazing products out there designed to increase alumni engagement, help with volunteer or event management, and there are plenty of social media listening platforms and content aggregator systems. As I mentioned in my post last week, I always say “yes” and make time for a demo even when we aren’t in the market here at U.Va.

Since I get asked for my opinions on the utility and viability of these platforms pretty regularly, I thought I’d also write a few suggestions that might help technology vendors understand what they should be aware of when attempting to infiltrate the higher education vertical. Some of these are obvious, others perhaps not. And of course, I see things through my U.Va. lens.

1) There isn’t much of a budget for new technology and large expenses are likely to be shared across the university.

I routinely listen to and watch great demos and then get price quotes at $25-30K per year for a school the size of U.Va. That kind of dollar amount allocated towards technology is unapproachable from any one departmental budget, sadly, if at all. To even consider something like this, I’d have to pull together Advancement VP’s, department heads, partners in the Alumni Association, and potentially constituents from all over the University and get everyone to share the cost. That’s extremely challenging to pull off. Just getting everyone together for a demo can be tough let alone a buying decision on a new platform. Anything above $10K annually probably isn’t going to fly or it’s going to take ages to make the buy.

2) If possible, don’t price platforms based on the size of the school or its constituent list.

I realize that it’s easier to develop a tiered pricing structure based on the volume of constituent data, but having worked at a very small private university and now a large public, I can safely say that the available funds for new technology are just about the same — minimal. Instead, consider pricing new platforms based on adoption success. We’ll both have skin in the game then and can work together towards the same goal.

3) Any technology that doesn’t make digital fundraising easier and functions as an engagement tool, in that order, is probably a non-starter.

Last July, my unit within University Advancement was fortunate enough to obtain responsibilities for the U.Va.’s annual giving program. We’re beginning to develop synergies between our regional engagement efforts, advancement communications and our annual giving priorities such that a platform that only enhances one area won’t work. The opportunity cost of purchasing a platform that allows alumni to foster greater connections with others in the network but has marginal utility during our annual “Giving Day,” for example, won’t get the green light. Believe me, I understand I’m placing a tall order here.

4) We need data that fits with our existing systems particularly our central fundraising database.

In an ideal world, engaged constituents on a new platform are associated with the same ID numbers we have in our central fundraising database. That makes it easier for us to track digital engagement at the individual level. Making the platform fit into the existing workflow would help tremendously. There’s got to be sync between platforms as much as possible.

5) If we can get close to the goal with new web design, then that’s the preferred approach.

At U.Va., University Communications doesn’t design, upkeep, manage or pay for any component of the alumni-oriented web properties. All costs are assumed by the Alumni Association and University Advancement sometimes in tandem with one or more of the schools. As such, spending money on a new platform means not spending it on custom programming. That’s a tough decision when there are so many great opportunities to make enhancements.

I hope these points are helpful. I’d be curious to hear from other higher education pros particularly those in the advancement or alumni association world with their thoughts.

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia and Co-Host of “Advancement Live.” You can follow him on twitter @RyanCatherwood and connect on Linkedin.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


1 Comment

Ryan Catherwood

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  • Ziggy_KUT

    Thanks Ryan for sharing your insight on this topic. Really helpful. In general, would you say the IT budgets for solving alumni fundraising / engagement issues is decreasing? Also, you mentioned the $10K ceiling, is this the cost amount with which you do not have to chase VP’s and Dept. Heads for approval? Or you still need their approval but it’s easier?

    • Ryan Catherwood

      I don’t think budgets are decreasing. I think they are increasing slowly. But overall budgets aren’t growing, so money is being reallocated. So much money is needed to support regional engagement – staff, travel and underwriting events that first and foremost, technology or web redesign must continue to support the overall effort of event marketing. I think my own budget could potentially absorb a $10K purchase of new technology and still provide me the flexibility I need, and I wouldn’t have to work to pull from other departments.

      • Ziggy_KUT

        Thanks. I agree with you that technology plays a supporting role. In reference to your second point (adoption success pricing model), would you price this in terms of total pageviews for example? If so, how many page views does your current engagement effort generate?

  • Thomas Stroup

    Thanks Ryan! I liked your thoughts regarding engaged constituents on a new platform, its association with the same ID numbers you have in the central fundraising database. It really makes easier for us to track digital engagement at the individual level.

    Thomas Stroup ( ceo: http://academic-writing.org )

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