Alumni relations: cultural and institutional context matters

Alumni relations: cultural and institutional context matters

Higher education institutions in continental Europe have been trying to define the role of alumni relations in their advancement strategies. While many institutions have incorporated alumni relations into their operational activities, these programmes have not undergone the same phases of development that their counterparts in North America or the UK have. What roles do cultural and institutional contexts play in shaping alumni relations strategies? What are the challenges facing alumni relations offices today?


Long tradition of alumni relations in some parts of the world

While organised alumni relations (AR) functions started to appear in the UK and USA in the 19th century, examples of alumni volunteering and philanthropic involvement date back as far as the 16th century. Today, most US and UK higher educational institutions offer a standard set of alumni relations programmes, including: reunions, alumni associations, fundraising initiatives, volunteer opportunities, professional networks and academic programmes.

Cultural and institutional factors affecting alumni relations programmes 

Similarly to my own institution, Central European University (CEU), many start-up alumni relations programmes in Europe tend to focus on the alumni records and career support functions. This strategy may be driven by the lack of a wider culture of alumni involvement and shorter history of alumni relations. Programmes are also shaped by the existing institutional resources, current economic situation, as well as EU and national regulations in regards to career path information tracking.

Another aspect of AR in the European context is the close connection to the International Relations offices at many institutions. These offices often become a hub for programme development and help to start AR functions at their institutions. Within this context, until comprehensive AR programmes are set up, many AR programmes in Europe focus on the needs of international alumni, whose support in recruitment and marketing is deemed as especially valuable.


Web 2.0 and new technologies

Alumni relations thrive on the global ‘knowledge economy’ and benefit from the latest advances in social media and communications. While journalists, for example, might be forced to compete with online ‘amateurs’, AR professionals embrace the new technologies which allow them to engage more of their key constituencies in a meaningful way. A blog run by a graduate, or an online alumni community on Facebook or LinkedIn, are seen as opportunities, rather than challenges. Indeed, modern communication technology can be seen as a way to engage more alumni and other key constituencies, thus empowering groups and individuals with connections and information, and building stronger relationships.


Making the most out of a ‘small-shop’

Many higher education institutions in Europe are starting to invest staff and resources into alumni operations. Often, a move from ‘zero’ to half FTE alumni relations staff, for example, is more of a sign of intention than a long-term strategic investment. Many AR officers manage these limitations by collaborating with other units at their institutions, for example publications, events and records management, or career services. Based on my experience, I would argue that the best way to go about AR in the context of the so-called ‘small-shop’ operation is the integrated approach, ie capitalising on internal institutional resources based on client group overlap and cross-functional activities.

Measuring success in alumni relations: difficult but necessary

Alumni relations officers are more frequently utilising different assessment techniques, benchmarking tools and CRM (customer relations management) systems. The goal here is to measure, manage and improve both individual staff performance and the core functions of the office. AR programmes are about connecting alumni to the institution and engaging them with one another, in the hope that those connections will translate into volunteers and financial support. Having said that, demonstrating programme effectiveness and creating a useful evaluation strategy for a profession that encompasses many different sizes and types of institutions is difficult.

To illustrate the challenge, I would use the following analogy: there are two doctors, one working in an emergency care unit and another in rehabilitation as a general practitioner. On the one hand, saving lives and taking immediate care of a number of patients within a limited time frame can be compared to a concrete, relatively simple performance assessment, based on how much revenue was generated by a fundraising office, for example. On the other hand, the success of a long process of rehabilitation, or a long-term GP-patient relationship, is naturally much more subjective and difficult to assess in quantifiable terms. The latter is thus comparable to what alumni relations professionals do: they develop and maintain relationships.

In this context, when answering questions regarding ‘return on investment’, one has to acknowledge this ‘relationship-specific’ subjective component and try to identify additional measurements upon which to compare programmes and their effectiveness, for example level of engagement.


The value of international alumni

Today’s institutions cater to a much more diverse student population than ever before. International student enrolments are on the rise, and many campuses now need to serve the needs of graduates from around the globe (see for example the article ‘International alumni matter’ in Spring Forum 2012). In this context, many higher education institutions, as well as governmental, cultural and educational agencies (for example British Council, DAAD or Nuffic), as well as multinational companies, have active alumni programmes in Asia and Europe, with a growing interest and need to reach graduates in Central and South America. While international alumni might still represent a small proportion of the graduates on most campuses, the potential importance of this alumni constituency should not be underestimated. International graduates can serve as institutional ambassadors on the global scene and add visibility and leverage to the international efforts of their institutions.

Are you setting up a new alumni programme or reshaping the existing one? Do you need a social media plan or new strategy for international alumni clubs? Perhaps you are mining data online or moving to a new database? The intensive ‘Alumni from A to Z’ course during the EAIE Academy in Riga, 20-24 April 2015, will cover all of these topics and more.

By Serge Sych, Director of Alumni and Corporate Relations, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary