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The Importance of Data in Alumni Engagement

By CASE District I

This post reprinted with permission from Shearwater, based on an interview conducted by Laura Forth, Director of Partnerships Development, with CASE District I Chair Gilbert Tordjman

How has Advancement Services changed since you came into the position at Concordia University in Montreal?
When I started here the department was relegated to a passive backseat activity: producing biographical profiles in advance of donor meetings so that the advancement officer meeting the donor could learn more about them. I realized that they were sitting on a great deal of information, along with a mountain of information available on social media. Now that we’ve shifted more towards the data, Advancement Services does predictive modeling to ensure that we can reach the right people with the right kind of engagement strategy.

As we learned more about our alumni, I started realizing that the individuals we were finding were not warm to the university for a number of reasons. First, life inevitably gets in the way. Alumni want to settle down, and often forget about the university in the years after graduation. Second and most importantly, we may have failed to engage them. I can find an affluent donor with disposable income but if she’s not fully engaged with the university, I’ve only done part of my job. If we have a holistic engagement strategy for that individual then we’ve closed the loop. Imagine if we could code in terms of an expected engagement score. The more we increase that score, the higher the expected donation will be.

We’ve had success with this targeted strategy, which my colleague Lori Yersh coined as “Accelerated Prospect Engagement”. Once we identify the individuals and learn everything we can about them, we begin to move them through the engagement strategy. Technology is helping us do this. Trying to engage someone when you have to travel to them physically is much more costly and time-consuming than communicating on social media with targeted certainty. From an alumni relations standpoint, and an annual giving standpoint, even a small gift that results from this strategy is a measure of engagement.

The traditional model of a donor – an older, gray-haired, affluent male who is the president of a large company – is no longer as relevant. In this day and age donors don’t look like this preordained model. We’ve broadened our focus to include more unconventional models like rising stars. We’re laying the groundwork not for tomorrow but for the next five years.
How do you gather and keep track of all of the information?
The reality is that most databases of alumni information are old, not up to date or incomplete. Getting alumni to engage enough to update their contact information is often impossible. What we’ve found is that individuals self-declare on websites like LinkedIn much more readily than they do registering with their alma mater. If you have access to LinkedIn, Facebook, and other sites you don’t have to be limited by your database. For example, if you believe that China is the next big opportunity for your alumni engagement efforts, you can learn more about your alumni by using alternative means like Weibo and WeChat.

We’ve shifted the mindset away from asking for traditional information. Most databases still include fax numbers, while most 20-28 year olds don’t even have home phone numbers anymore. It can a bit disconcerting when most of your audience are using communication methods that aren’t email. Try taking advantage of more creative strategies, like targeting alumni that are ambassadors on social media. If you can agree that a certain percentage of an alumni’s followers are also alumni, then you have a conduit through which to reach them.
What does Accelerated Prospect Engagement look like in action?
First, it wasn’t simple to get buy in for this program. We have a clear understanding from all sides and parties today, but there was pushback because our ideas don’t represent the way things used to work. Communications and Alumni Relations had their ways of doing things, but we were able to show that data can make those strategies more targeted and efficient.

When we plan events that naturally fit well with what the data is telling us about this segment’s interests, our events are more impactful. Instead of writing articles and publishing them in a newsletter or magazine, we can target communications to specific cohorts that are identified by the data. If we have individuals that are good donors, we want a tailor made strategy, not an off the rack strategy. If they haven’t been engaged or attended events, we don’t spend too much money or time having these individuals meet with the President.

This is where resources are very precious. Our roles are about increasing a return on investment for the university, but that can mean monetary or in terms of alumni engagement. As long as we all agree that we can use our budget in a more targeted fashion and we can get back what we want from our strategy.

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