An Advanced Way of Investing in Advancement
In order for universities to advance, they need to rethink how they are investing in university advancement. Advancement’s role is to assure sustained and growing investment in universities, yet many universities are not investing in the growth that’s truly needed for advancement itself to, well, advance. This is the paradox of university advancement.
Where this growth is most essential is digital. And the investment that universities need to make in advancement’s embrace of digital must be long-term, sustained, robust, and ever-flexible. This investment must not just be based in financial allocations but in other resources like people, time, information, and strategy. And this investment must focus on core areas essential to powering a modern and future-ready advancement operation, including engagement, data and analytics, technology, strategy, staffing, and, yes, alumni.
Giving numbers are down over the past two decades. Alumni event participation is down. But digital engagement thrives. This is how the world connects now. This is the investment alumni are making in their alma maters in order to stay connected, to stay involved, to participate. By and large, alumni do not have the access, time, resources, or desire to participate in person. But that shouldn’t minimize their potential from an advancement standpoint. These alumni likely have excellent reasons for not attending events or volunteering, but that in no way diminishes their affinity for their university. Their lack of on-site participation should not be interpreted as disinterest in or indifference toward the university.
Quite the contrary; the alumni who only are engaging online should be embraced, celebrated, cultivated even. For many alumni, digital channels are not only their sole means of connection, they are their best means of connection – that repeated connection on a regular basis with their alma mater and with fellow alumni. This must be harnessed.
These digital interactions should not be written off as fleeting. These alumni should not be written off as low-tier prospects. These alumni are hyperconnected, repeat virtual visitors to campus, to their alumni world. These alumni comprise the potential that is a school’s investment. These alumni have the affinity that is often presumed to only be possible by way of event attendance or volunteering. These alumni are interacting with their alma mater, they are interacting with others who have affinity, and they are doing it consistently. These alumni are the gateway to connecting many more alumni and, ultimately, to a more lucrative advancement effort. They may even be future event attendees or volunteers.
Data and Analytics
Amplifying the power of that sustained digital connectivity is the volume and scope of digital engagement data that can be leveraged to fortify the advancement investment. So much data is sitting out there thanks to digital. And that data tells stories. So. Many. Stories. Stories of engagement. Stories of which social media posts are garnering alumni response or which broadcast emails alumni are opening. Stories around alumni events and programs. Stories of the current interests of alumni and students and parents and donors. Stories of affinity for the university as a whole – or a particular piece of it. Collectively, this data tells so much about what’s working and what’s not working with alumni audiences. And, it’s likely to inform why those giving and event participation numbers are dwindling. This data must be leveraged to find the individual narratives that can improve engagement and the greater narrative to the ultimate story that, hopefully, has a happy ending and many sequels to come for advancement and for the university.
Powering much of this digital engagement and its related data and metrics is a set of systems and platforms that advancement offices have invested quite a bit of money, time, and people into launching, maintaining, enhancing, and replacing over the years. Today’s advancement operations could not exist without this technology, without the infrastructure and services to ensure that all of this data and digital activity is being managed properly, securely, and strategically. Databases, event registration, email marketing, online giving, crowdfunding, online communities, volunteer management tools, websites, apps, multimedia archives, collaboration tools, servers, and so much more.
Though potentially costly from an initial expenditure standpoint, new tools and technology that can ultimately improve operations, cut staff time, provide better services, yield better information, and enhance the advancement effort must be explored, selected, and implemented in a timely manner to maximize their impact. Post-implementation, such technologies must have dedicated staff maintaining, enhancing, training, documenting, and leveraging them in order to get a strong yield on the investment. And, such technologies must constantly be evaluated to assure sustainability and longevity – or to determine whether alternatives or new technologies must be explored, selected, and implemented and whether existing technologies need to be retired.
Connecting digital engagement, data and analytics, and technology itself warrants significant strategy. Layering all of this across the greater advancement operation is a massive but critical charge. But if done strategically – with perspective of short- and long-term goals, proper allocation of resources, and an awareness of the need to be ever-flexible given the ever-evolving digital and technological landscape both outside of and within higher education – this synergy can have a tremendous impact on the operation, the alumni, and the staff.
Dedicated teams with expertise related to digital engagement, data and analytics, and technology are also essential to ensuring that the investment in strategies around these areas is secured. For without the appropriate staff roles, staffing numbers, and cross-team or cross-institution dynamics established, things can fall apart.
At an industry conference, or in a webinar, or through posts around a common hashtag, a common theme abounds: digital engagement in higher education is vastly under-resourced. Many digital folks are part of a tiny team or are a team of one – tasked with supporting the gargantuan pillars of advancement present and advancement future. How can one person or one tiny team be expected to deliver so much, so consistently, so creatively, and with so few resources? Social media posts, photos, graphics, and ads. Video production. Live video and event coverage. Email marketing writing, and production. Website content, design, and architecture. Digital communications analytics. Online community management and help desk support. Event registration and form builds. Email marketing and event registration training and support. Communications coordination. Analytics coordination. Database coordination. Technology coordination. Vendor coordination. Staying current on industry trends. And other duties as assigned.
It is clear that there is value to all of this digital engagement by the volume of work being delivered across universities. But the expectation that all of this can be carried out effectively and regularly – let alone brilliantly, without repercussions, and at a sustained high level – without being adequately and strategically resourced is unheralded. That this, for many schools, is the current normal in the face of the digital revolution and its incredible potential for universities is something that advancement offices must address today.
The creativity and talent of these digital warriors – embraced by leadership, guided by a proper strategy and long-term vision, and resourced appropriately with tools and skilled colleagued – can carry university advancement.
Often lost or, rather, misidentified in the advancement investment are alumni. Alumni are usually identified as donors, prospects, graduates from a specific major, or former students who participated in a particular student organization. Categorizing alumni into these buckets does not tell us who they are; it tells us what they did in relation to the university. Or, perhaps, what they did for the university. Advancement shops must function in an alumni-first mindset. What are alumni truly interested in? What do alumni want out of their relationship with the university? How can the university help or give back to the alumni? How can the university truly invest in the alumni so that the alumni genuinely want to invest in the university?
Let’s advance advancement by taking a digital-first approach that encapsulates an alumni-first mindset. But first, let’s advance advancement by investing in it properly and thoughtfully.
Jon Horowitz is a digital strategy consultant for higher education advancement and alumni relations. Follow Jon on Twitter @hrwtz.