Education leaders are facing times like no other. The ongoing pandemic and resulting economic crisis have placed extreme financial burdens on institutions and impacted the focus and drive of both leaders and their teams.
I have seen it all, as someone who has worked in advancement for more than 20 years and now as the executive director of alumni relations and development at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. As budgets and other resources become constrained, leaders often face difficult decisions about which programs, activities, and initiatives to support and which ones to cut.
Often, leaders use revenue generation to guide their decision-making, sparing programs that bring in income and sacrificing those that do not. Without question, this is the path a leader must take in the most extreme circumstances, to save an imperiled institution. But if the situation is not completely dire and circumstances permit, wise leaders can also make strategic decisions that allow them to address short-term pressures and make long-term investments.
Supporting fundraising and alumni relations simultaneously is one such example of strategic decision-making focused both on the present and the future health of our educational institutions.
Gifts and Engagement
Major, principal, and planned gifts can be transformational. They have the power to instantly make a significant and lasting impact on an institution and to change its trajectory. They fuel an institution’s aspirations. And in times of constrained budgets, they can be crucial windfalls to meet crippling revenue gaps. But it is important to remember that successful fundraising is most often the consequence of strong and steadfast engagement that has creatively and systematically deepened donors’ involvement with an organization. Alumni relations plays a fundamental role in this complex work.
Teresa Sutter, assistant director of alumni relations and archivist, and Stephanie Rever Chu, director of alumni relations, both at the Latin School of Chicago, know about this firsthand. Sutter and Chu are experienced alumni relations professionals who are active in the independent school community and presented at the January 2021 CASE-NAIS Independent Schools Conference.
They shared one such example of the journey of a major gift donor: Latin spent almost 10 years cultivating an alumni prospect who just made a significant gift. The alumna attended reunions, came to campus whenever she was in Chicago, and went on field trips with students. Without those meaningful points of engagement and many others along the way, they said they were certain the alumna wouldn’t have made a gift of that size.
While alumni engagement plays a considerable role in supporting fundraising, it also fosters other significant and long-lasting benefits for an institution, such as reinforcing community, creating opportunities for participation, and providing meaningful avenues for service. These benefits, among others, contribute to a vibrant organization and create a virtuous circle of symbiotic and worthwhile involvement and giving back.
People want to feel like they are a part of a community—and not just any community but one that is meaningful and has purpose for them. Whether connected to a town, a place of worship, a club, or a social service agency, people want to belong to entities where they feel bonded to others through a shared sense of identity and mission. As human beings, we crave being a part of flourishing communities where we can connect with others who share our values. Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, has a strong reputation for creating community. When Zimmer launched the university’s Inquiry and Impact campaign in 2014, he not only announced a fundraising goal, but an engagement goal, which at the time was quite rare. Zimmer set a target of engaging more than 125,000 alumni (more than 80% of the alumni base at that time) during the campaign.
“Communities are important, and people want to be a part of them as communities are places where they find meaning and importance,” Zimmer says. “The community you are a part of reflects who you are and what you value.”
In alumni relations, there are many examples of graduates sharing in the same activities: academic lectures, study trips, affinity group conferences, sporting events, and young alumni happy hours. When engaged in the life of the institution, alumni can serve an important role of being ambassadors and advocates, amplifying community spirit and creating positive feedback loops.
How alumni engage in their alumni communities and what they say about their alma maters can be powerful drivers of connection and impact. Active alumni participation and engagement can serve as fundamental mechanisms to broadcast and steward the university’s brand, image, values, and mission. But, while alumni are often well-intentioned and well-meaning, Zimmer says, they may not have all the tools and resources they need to be true partners in maintaining the institution’s vibrancy and relevance.
“First, an institution must decide what it is and what it needs,” Zimmer notes. “Then it must match its requests with the talents and ambitions of the alumni for them to be advocates and ambassadors for the value and meaning of the institution.”
Making sure that a robust and active alumni relations program exists to support broad-based advancement endeavors is paramount for institutional growth and a key reason that institutional leaders should continue to prioritize them as a complement to fundraising, even during times of unprecedented challenge.
Creating Opportunities for Participation
Alumni engagement also plays an important role in fostering participation. From attending online or in-person events, to mentoring a student, to hosting a happy hour for classmates, to volunteering to lead an affinity group, there are many meaningful ways for alumni to participate in the fabric of an institution.
Participation also comes in the form of making a gift. By continually reconnecting to their alma maters and their fellow graduates through active involvement, alumni can see how philanthropy at all levels is having an impact. Alumni engagement also offers potential donors a pathway to a more personal and deeper relationship to their institutions and their missions, which in turn can inspire a greater interest in giving.
The act of making a gift has been likened to voting in an election. A person may canvas for a political candidate, and host events or even fundraise for her or him. But nothing is as powerful, or as meaningful, as when the person casts her or his vote for a particular candidate. The same is true for making a gift to an institution. While alumni may give back in many ways, it is the very personal act of making a gift that can signal how much they favor the institution, its leadership, and its direction.
Mark Nemec, president of Fairfield University, Connecticut, U.S., has been intentional in how he involves stakeholders. While Nemec was the dean of the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Studies, he built broadscale opportunities for alumni to connect to the university’s academic content. He understands the important role that alumni engagement plays in providing benefits that alumni want.
“Alumni giving is a gauge of sentiment and satisfaction,” Nemec says. “The personal act of giving and joining others who do the same is a powerful public example of the shared alumni commitment to and investment in their alma mater.”
Institutional leaders must prioritize alumni engagement and annual fund giving, making it as easy as possible to contribute. Not all donors have the time or the interest to engage in other ways. Sometimes giving is the easiest and most meaningful way for alumni to show their pride and appreciation. Making sure that alumni have ample opportunity to vote through their giving must remain a key priority for institutional leaders as it provides an important signal and builds a larger base of sustaining support from which major and planned gifts are possible.
“At its core, giving participation is about mobilizing patronage and is both an individual and a collective vote of confidence in the successful partnership,” Nemec says. “Alumni want to be associated with a winner.”
Providing Meaningful Avenues for Service
In addition to fostering community and building participation, strong alumni relations programs provide a meaningful avenue for alumni service to the institution. Indeed, not only does alumni engagement deepen relationships and thereby foster greater giving; well-executed volunteer opportunities can also yield untold additional benefits for institutions and their communities.
Few in the field of educational advancement could argue with the impact alumni volunteers have on the institution. Volunteers help with their reunions, host events, interview prospective students, and give tirelessly on community service days. But one of the most valuable alumni engagement opportunities comes in connecting students with alumni.
William Quillen, dean of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College and Conservatory, Ohio, U.S., believes alumni engagement is critical to his students’ success. At Oberlin, Quillen started new programs that directly link students with alumni who can potentially help them with their careers. One such example is Stage Left, a digital broadcasting platform that features alumni guest artists who explore topics and themes with students.
“We were already doing a lot to engage alumni, but during the pandemic, we have launched many virtual alumni programs,” Quillen says. Stage Left “has been an incredibly easy and inexpensive way for us to share countless alumni stories—personal and professional—with our students.”
When students spend time with alumni, they gain insights and add to their networks. They also get a unique chance to imagine themselves in the future, helping further refine their plans for the rest of their college careers and beyond.
“Alumni connections are arguably the single best resource our students can have when they leave Oberlin,” Quillen says.
Moreover, for alumni who engage in service opportunities with their alma maters, their service commitment often does not stop there. These alumni are often also involved in their communities and in their professions. They serve as elected officials, community organizers, and activists on the front lines of social justice reform. They lead socially responsible companies and build innovative systems to sustain the planet. They help the most vulnerable, teach the next generation, and care for the sick. Through their lived experiences, alumni have rich stories, anecdotes, and life lessons.
For students, alumni can serve as advisors, coaches, and mentors. Equally important, alumni can also serve as a valuable resource to the institution by offering their expertise and connection to their networks to advance the important work and mission of the institution.
“Alumni can serve not only as critical ambassadors, advocates, and advisors, but they can also serve as crucial accelerants,” Fairfield’s Nemec says. “They can help get things done.”
Continuing Important Work, Wisely
Without question, education leaders face significant pressures as they continue to weather the pandemic and its ongoing reverberations. And institutional leaders need critical financial support from philanthropy to meet current demands and realize long-term objectives. Dan Allenby, principal and founder of the Annual Giving Network and author of the CASE published book Ideas for Annual Giving: Pea Pods, Parachutes and Other Designs for Boosting Alumni Participation, has witnessed the evolution of alumni giving and participation and maintains there’s never been a more important time to keep those connections strong.
“As I reflect on the past year, I can’t remember a time when annual support for an institution has been more important than it is right now,” Allenby says. “With so much uncertainty, donor support is critical to sustaining institutions through these very unpredictable times.”
Yet to the extent possible under these constrained economic circumstances, educational leaders must also continue to invest in the long-term benefits of alumni relations, and support and empower staff who create opportunities for engagement. Yes, that engagement will broaden the base of involved alumni who could potentially be major, principal, and/or planned gift donors in the future. But that engagement, in and of itself, has long-reaching other benefits as well.
Donors who get involved with an institution in turn serve as strong amplifiers, reinforcing positive community attributes and the deeper meaning the organization has for them. Continuing to invest in making it as easy as possible to give reduces the barriers for donors to vote with their philanthropy and show positive collective support for the organization and its leadership. And finally, alumni possess many skills and talents that are not always known nor put to maximum use. Continuing to build a robust alumni engagement program brings those accomplishments to the foreground, allowing students, faculty, staff, and institutional leaders to better leverage them.
While the current times may lead to a tendency to prioritize fundraising over alumni relations, engagement opportunities, and building participation, many in advancement agree that their institutions can advance both equally.
“Alumni engagement has always been important at Oberlin and during these times we’ve seen an even greater opportunity to expand our reach and connections,” Quillen says. “We’re not doubling down on those efforts. We’re tripling down!”
About the author(s)
Most recently, Damon Cates worked as senior vice president for advancement at Loyola Chicago. Prior to that he spent more than six years as UChicago's senior associate vice president and campaign director in the Office of Alumni Relations and Development.
He has spent time in development roles at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and before that he served an additional six years at UChicago assisting the medical center as well as the Booth and Law Schools with ARD work. In addition to his Booth degree, Cates has his bachelor's degree from Millikin University and his doctorate with a concentration in philanthropy from the University of Pennsylvania.
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Community, Celebration, and Change: How traditions bridge past, present, and future. Plus, understanding how equity is central to institutions’ pursuit of social and racial justice, engaging alumni of color, and investing in alumni during trying times.