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  • March 29, 2012

On Forgotten Alumni and Cold Pleas for Cash

Like many of you, I’m a busy person, yet it’s important that I find time for the occasional phone call to Mom and Dad. A typical phone conversation with my Mom starts like this:

Me: “Hi Mom, it’s me. How are you doing?” Decorative Illustration

Mom: “How have you been, honey? By the way, would you PLEASE either pick up all this mail from TCNJ or give them your new address so they stop sending it to us? Your father and I are up to our ears in this stuff.”

Me: [Tragic Sigh] “I really don’t want it, Mom. They’re just asking me for money. Can’t you just throw it in the recycling bin?”

Mom: “Well, alright. But would you please give them your address? You moved out of the house years ago. This is getting a little old.”

Me: [White Lie] “Okay, I will.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation. But a few months ago, I finally took pity on my parents and went to TCNJ’s Alumni Website. I muddled through the clunky interface, registered for an alumni account, and gave them my new address.

I’ve always wanted to be active as an alumnus, so while I was there, I checked out the site for simple ways to get involved. I was disappointed to find that the site did very little to engage me. While there are a few nuggets of helpful information, most of the content is dry and meaningless. The few events listed on the calendar aren’t applicable to me. I’m in a relationship, and I majored in art, so the alumni speed dating event and the School of Engineering alumni reception aren’t exactly for me.

I enjoy public speaking, volunteering, writing, and generally helping others. As an alumnus of the art department, I’d love to meet up with former professors, mentor students, match students with employers and recruiters in my area, and so on. But the site doesn’t allow any of that. There is no personalization or customization. It would be great if I could tell them that I’m an art alumnus and opt in to be notified about gallery openings, student art exhibitions, and portfolio reviews. I even went over to the art department website, but alas, there isn’t a section for alumni.

I asked some of my fellow art department alumni if they remain engaged at all. Most of them aren’t active, although they would be if the opportunity were there. One fellow graduate, a graphic designer, said “I’d happily donate some time to come and talk to graduating students about job hunting, portfolios, etc. Any idiot can give money. We can give something more valuable.” I couldn’t agree more.

Now that TCNJ has my address, they’ll be sending donation solicitations directly to me instead of my parents. My Mom will be happier, but meanwhile, I’ll still be lamenting the lost opportunity. Student loans aside, I have no desire to donate to my alma mater because I don’t feel that I have a reason to. TCNJ is like an old friend who fell off the face of the earth, yet calls me every now and again to ask for money.

At Happy Cog, we’ve worked with a fair amount of higher education clients, many of whom rely on alumni donations. We’ve learned from our clients that most of those donations must be earned; alumni need a reason to give back to their alma maters. And money aside, there are so many benefits to maintaining relationships with alumni. Relationships allow alumni to connect with faculty, other alumni, and students. Current students benefit from mentors, networking, and job possibilities. The opportunities are endless. Even for prospective students, who are often the primary audience for university websites, the presence of an active alumni community is a fantastic selling point. What student wouldn’t want to graduate with access to a professional network of fellow alumni?

Andrea Sabia, a colleague of mine here at Happy Cog, attended Lafayette University. We were discussing this very subject when she told me that Lafayette provides a wealth of opportunities in which alumni can engage. She’s participated in the mentoring programs and attended several events. This immediately piqued my interest, so I visited the Lafayette Alumni site and saw a profound difference from that of TCNJ. The site is alive with events, alumni groups, ways to volunteer, news, and so on. Photographs of actual alumni, students, and faculty abound. Comparatively, this program is leaps and bounds ahead of TCNJ’s.

I spent a bit of time on Lafayette’s alumni website and noticed a few areas for improvement, but overall the site conveys a vibrant and active alumni community. The events calendar showcases an array of alumni activities, ranging from reunions to brewery tours to golf outings. This diversity caters to a variety of interests (I’m not a golfer, but as an avid drinker of craft beers, I would LOVE to visit a brewery with fellow alumni). Class and chapter websites allow visitors to update their class notes profiles and connect with other alumni that they might’ve lost touch with otherwise. Lastly, the university allows alumni to send in their event photos. Openly requesting photos from the alumni community is a great way of saying “we want you to contribute and share your photo memories with us.”

As any content strategist will tell you, good content is expensive, and you can’t have useful and compelling website content without dedicated staff members to create, govern, and archive the content. But this principle extends beyond good content. You can’t have an active alumni community without staff and resources to make it happen. Service design is a relatively new concept within the user experience (UX) community. The idea is to ensure that every aspect of your product or service brings a positive experience to your audience. When it comes to alumni engagement, this includes human interaction (events, mentoring programs, networking opportunities) as well as an online strategy. Alumni need to feel engaged both offline and online. And in order to make that happen, universities must dedicate the time, resources, and staff to cultivate a vibrant community.

Are you an active alumnus? Why or why not? Do you know of any colleges or universities that maintain good relationships with their alumni, both online and offline? If so, please share in the comments.

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