Diversity and Democracy

The View from Alumni Relations: Creating a Culture of Giving and Engagement

Rather than approaching graduates solely as potential donors, what if alumni relations and development professionals asked alumni of all ages a set of open-ended questions unrelated to giving, and listened closely to their responses? What would colleges and universities learn that they could apply to the educational experience for current students? What if administrators and faculty welcomed development staff as partners in the educational process? What if development professionals understood themselves as helping to improve the educational experience and prepare the next generation of civically engaged citizens?

As director of external relations and annual giving programs at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), I oversee College Connections, a program in which we listen to graduates’ stories of their experiences both during and after college and use their insights and recommendations to better the university. We hire new graduates as College Connections coordinators, who share college updates and conduct listening visits with alumni. At no point do they ask participants for money.

College Connections has revolutionized the way we think about development and alumni relations. We think that a “both/and” culture of giving and engagement has emerged: alumni are inclined both to give financially to their alma mater—often in modest ways—andto act as advocates for and even coeducators in implementing socially responsive, real-world learning that grew from their own college-to-life experience.

A Different Kind of Gift

The LSA College Connections program came out of a traditional advancement model that positioned alumni as donors, not partners or coeducators. College leadership thought that interviewing graduates would help us identify donors for our capital campaign. Initially, we targeted alumni with major gift potential, but the more we dug into the information alumni shared with us, the more we realized the value of the program beyond a fiscal pipeline strategy.

We opened our interviews to former students of all ages regardless of giving history and looked beyond the scope of advancement, shifting our focus to evaluating the entire University of Michigan experience and trying to understand its effect on graduates’ lives and work. We began to gather information about our alumni’s time as students (including their community involvement), their engagement with the college and their communities today, and their hopes for the college in the future. We documented the conversations as oral history projects and tracked opportunities for improvement.

College Connections had as many detractors as supporters in its infancy. Administrators questioned how LSA could justify the return on investment of sending College Connections coordinators to talk to people without returning with money. Some alumni were wary of visiting with the coordinators, fearing the appointments were just a ploy to ask for gifts. Faculty and staff were not always receptive to acting on alumni’s feedback about undergraduate education.

Once administrators and advancement professionals saw how many alumni were participating, however, they reevaluated.

After eight thousand interviews, we can say that alumni enjoy the experience, appreciate being asked for feedback, and feel like partners in addressing important issues at their alma mater. They like being reconnected to their former programs and faculty, and they step up to help current students.

We discovered that College Connections was a good resource for identifying donors and improving annual fund retention, but it was a great resource for gathering ideas to strengthen our academic offerings and for giving former students intellectually stimulating and professionally beneficial opportunities to engage with current students. The college has used findings to improve the curriculum, advising process, and student programs. Through the interviews, the college has also identified graduates to serve as mentors and internship sponsors, teach classes, speak as experts on current issues, and collaborate on faculty initiatives. Because College Connections invites all alumni to participate, the program gives groups that are normally underrepresented opportunities to be heard, to volunteer, and to provide guidance to the college.

Civic Connections

Through the College Connections interview process, we are also learning more about how alumni understand themselves as civic actors. Some of what we have learned relates to differences in generational attitudes. For example, while most alumni agree that colleges and universities have a responsibility to serve society, we found that older alumni often view civic engagement as a personal choice rather than a curricular priority, and middle-aged alumni speak of it as a high school requirement. However, our recent graduates often talk about civic engagement as a social or moral responsibility. Feedback from recent graduates is particularly valuable because it allows us to provide a more relevant educational experience for current students and more useful services to help our graduates succeed.

Our former students told us that being exposed to diverse views and problem-solving skills during college strongly influenced how they thought about the world and interacted with it after graduation. Now, as they mentor current students or bring their life lessons back into our classrooms as speakers, alumni are becoming coeducators. Faculty have invited alumni to help them teach topics as disparate as marketing yourself with a liberal arts degree, breaking down barriers to bipartisanship, and stopping human trafficking. We are in the early stages of understanding what it means to engage with alumni as coeducators, but ten years ago, we would not even have thought to use this term or wonder where it’s taking us.

Can Alumni Relations Staff Become Civic Professionals?

I love my job in advancement, but the kind of opportunity I had in launching College Connections was rare. It was dependent on an unusually innovative office culture and a supportive dean. In fact, over the past thirty years working in the alumni relations and development fields at private and public institutions, independent schools, and flagship universities, I have had only a few opportunities to deviate from traditional advancement practices.

Changing the professional culture of higher education philanthropy presents real challenges. The costs to run universities are beyond what students can pay in tuition, and we must make up the difference somewhere, often through private donations in an increasingly competitive philanthropic arena. The advancement field has high turnover due to the pressures of trying to meet goals, burnout from the pace, and low-paying entry-level salaries. Many institutions do not provide adequate training for development staff who come from a variety of backgrounds. With these pressures, advancement professionals primarily focus on the business of building relationships to raise money to address needs and priorities, not on how to develop a civically engaged alumni base.

But I do see signs of change. Thirty years ago, no one went to college saying they wanted to become a fundraiser. Today, I see students go into advancement because it appeals to their desire to make a difference in society. More schools are offering philanthropy internships, classes, and degrees. The field is becoming more sophisticated as the art and science of fundraising evolves. Young advancement professionals are enthusiastic about their work and willing to try new ideas.

Yet even under the best conditions, it is difficult to foster a common culture between advancement and academia. We have no platform for a conversation about how advancement professionals might reimagine our jobs as people who build relationships with civically engaged alumni. This is the case even as we are asked to raise funds for things like experiential learning, which lay the groundwork for the civic-minded graduates we work with every day.

Even though changing the field is problematic, it is not impossible. Some presidents and deans are shifting the paradigm. Higher education associations that support community-based learning and the model of the “engaged institution” can reach out to alumni relations professionals as key allies in alumni listening projects. Gatherings like Citizen Alum institutes and the Kettering Foundation’s Learning Exchange on Civically Engaged Alumni workshops are invaluable as they bring people in diverse institutional roles together around the challenges of building ties with former students who identify as civic actors. Along with the work I do with College Connections, these trends and opportunities make me persistently hopeful.

Nini Poore is Director of External Relations and Annual Giving Programs at the University of Michigan.

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