Going global, staying engaged

Going global, staying engaged

This week on the EAIE blog, we are highlighting the latest EAIE Occasional Paper Staying Global: how alumni relations advances the agenda. Authors of the book have contributed exclusive blog posts that look at some of the different facets of international alumni engagement in preparation for the EAIE Webinar taking place later this month. Today’s blog post addresses how alumni can become a resource for higher education institutions looking to forge corporate partnerships and, ultimately, increase their fundraising efforts.

From the financial crisis of 2008 to increased competition and declining state funding, higher education institutions (HEIs) face growing pressure to find new sources of funding. In unprecedented efforts to diversify giving, development and alumni relations offices are increasing their capacity for outreach and fundraising.

Growing partnership between international alumni and their alma maters demonstrates how alumni create corporate contacts for their institutions. Efforts to build innovative and vibrant corporate relations are, of course, not new to higher education. Corporate relations within the context of alumni relations hold great potential.  Strong arguments are to be made in favour of combining the two creatively.

All institutions striving for growth and seeking to expand need to tap into new stakeholder groups. Easy in theory, much harder in practice: What do institution–alumni–corporate relations mean in terms of defining engagement rationales? How do these shape perceptions of benefits? Finally, how can genuine ‘win-wins’ within overarching stakeholder groups be achieved?

Engagement rationales: The alumni viewpoint

Many alumni describe their motivation for engagement as fundamentally shaped by individual, professional and personal development. This includes alumni ability to rise within corporate or professional hierarches and demonstrate leadership in an organisational setting. It takes no great leap of imagination, but rather just a bit of foresight to visualise alumni as key players for future partnerships and institutional growth strategies.

Sound good? Reframing the mind-set of this relationship remains a crucial task for a number of HEIs. Underpinning this is the working assumption that institutions have done and will do everything possible to create opportunities for students and future alumni. Of course, the ‘deliverables’ must continue to be measured within the framework of institutional operations − state-of-the-art teaching and programming, rigorous research, scientific achievement, strong networks, and sustained reputational excellence. The challenge for many HEIs will be live up to such expectations while implementing measurements of success based on alumni assessment.

Engagement rationales: the corporate viewpoint

At the heart of the response to the question of what corporations ‘need’ from HEIs is a basic grasp of such relationships as transactional, not charitable. The extent to which the business community through its engagement with HEIs truly ‘does good by doing great’ is determined by all parties’ ability to create value and measure impact.

HEI strengths vary, ranging from talent development to faculty relationships to public relations and corporate social responsibility. All have the makings to be part of a clear business case. Institutional initiatives intended to strengthen corporate partnerships provide true value from the engagement while simultaneously imparting a sense of being part of something greater.

Balancing tangible and intangible benefits

One of the more sensitive elements of the institution–alumni–corporate relationship is striking a balance between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ benefits − collective and individual alike. Practitioners stress the importance of client and customer insights, quality in execution and questions of impact. Corporate evaluation of collaboration nearly always hinges upon criteria such as insights into participant progress, innovation, quality control vis-à-vis student and alumni skill sets or the availability of forums offering visibility. Opportunities for HEIs to bring even more added value to relationships include:

  1. Assistance with the tracking of alumni progress and career paths
  2. Strategies to ensure relationships remain hands-on – immediate and defined in terms of programme value.

Cultural shifts and emerging trends

Many immaterial facets of relationships and the concept of intangible deliverables still lack resonance in parts of the world. They may even be felt to be incompatible with broader working assumptions guiding large organisations like HEIs. The fact that higher education is a state-sponsored activity in many countries creates further complications.

European HEIs, for example, still have much to do to shake off perceptions of systemic indifference to individual student and alumni experience – despite the best efforts of an ever-growing body of alumni relations and development professionals who can hardly shoulder the entire burden alone.

Perceptions of what constitutes a culture of service and engagement are guided by unique cultural determinants and a particular sense of give-and-take in a relationship. Many institutions lacking a continuous history of alumni engagement have also not yet developed a robust relationship pipeline, let alone a strategy to put one in place.

Evolution remains slow-paced, sustainable, but surely inevitable. Demographic and technological developments, such as the emergence of Generation Y as a force in business and society as well as social media’s influence on communications practices, are bound to help it along.

Checks, balances and finding a way forward

Experts and formalised networks of industry urge HEIs to seek ways to achieve a set of ‘checks and balances’ that allow for them to respond to business demands and feedback from the outside. When asked to assess what constitutes win-win relationships between alumni, corporate partners and education institutions, all point to the need for alumni networks to deliver clear benefit for alumni and the institution or risk extinction due to dwindling relevance. A further ‘big-picture approach’ would certainly be for players in all sectors to do what they can to cultivate engagement on a societal level.

Alumni relationships are lifelong and, ostensibly, inherently sustainable.  Employee and human needs evolve over time.  The degree to which alumni maintain points of contact and identification with their alma maters varies. Successful strategies will need to be tailored and to incorporate flexible approaches.

The special challenge for HEIs late to take up alumni relations – and lacking outreach ability with respect to the more senior and much-neglected generations of alumni – will be to simultaneously restore relationships and pursue diversification strategies vis-à-vis alumni offerings. Here, HEIs may wish to take advantage of an opportunity not only to collaborate, but to learn from the business community’s efforts. In an ideal constellation, all will work together to create human resources and talent management activities for stakeholders across a wide span of age and experience.

Becky is Vice President of the European Fundraising Association.