Bright Ideas: Understanding the Current Issues Impacting College Engagement Strategies

August 2023 — By BrightCrowd

Colleges and universities continuously rely on their alumni networks to obtain funding and support for various initiatives. By creating meaningful relationships with former students, engaging with the local community, and fostering a sense of school spirit, these institutions hope to garner philanthropic giving. However, it’s important to note that there’s an art and science behind engagement strategies that make it challenging for schools to determine the best method to interact with their alumni to achieve beneficial results for all parties.

No two higher education institutions are the same – and as a result, any strategies or initiatives must be customizable to meet their specific needs. But with so many advancements within the higher education sector, how can alumni relations departments pinpoint where to focus their resources and decide what target audience will help them reach their desired goals?

According to Charlie Melichar of Melichar Consulting, schools must understand the “why.” Why are they looking to increase alumni engagement? Why do they need to modify or completely re-design their current engagement strategy? If they can't adequately answer these questions, they risk remaining stagnant or suffering a loss.

What Are Some of the Biggest Challenges Facing Higher Education Engagement?

Throughout recent years, technological advancements have made a profound impact across numerous industries. Although advanced technologies have made it easier for alumni to engage with one another and remain connected to their alma mater, it's disrupted alumni relations efforts and often created many obstacles for university staff and leaders.

Humans are programmed to set after the “newest” and “next big thing” – higher education institutions are no exception. Advanced technologies create advantages and disadvantages when it comes to developing engagement strategies. Distracted by top-notch capabilities and features, digital alumni engagement programs can cause universities to lose focus on their goal. They need to determine what they’re trying to achieve, why it’s important, and how they can execute it. If a new program, initiative, or tactic doesn’t provide value or help move the needle forward, then a school might benefit from re-evaluating its adoption.

This isn’t to say that trying newer technologies, even if on a smaller scale, isn’t worthwhile. Even though older platforms may have become commonplace when dealing with alumni relations, institutions shouldn't automatically assume they’re as effective as they once were. Understanding a school's target audience can help determine if current initiatives are helping to scale engagement or if new methods are needed.

How Did the Covid-19 Pandemic Affect Engagement Strategies?

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted many businesses, organizations, and higher education institutions worldwide. Colleges and universities experienced widespread closures that hindered current students and alumni alike – students could no longer maintain a physical presence on campus, and alumni couldn’t partake in alumni events such as networking opportunities, reunions, and other large-scale gatherings. If schools could no longer rely on traditional methods of alumni interaction, then it was critical that they establish new ways to encourage community engagement in higher education.

Schools now had a blank slate, an opportunity to collaborate internally and discover new ideas to best combat the issue at hand. Rather than reverting to their previous engagement strategies, alumni relations departments turned to front-line workers to gain valuable insight into their target audience. These individuals regularly interact with alumni personally and can provide information about how and what alumni expect to gain from alumni engagement. In implementing these organizational/cultural changes, schools better understood what previous strategies were effective and what needed reinventing.

What’s the Anticipated Response to Eliminating the Alumni Giving Participation Metric?

The U.S. News & World Report recently announced that the alumni giving participation metric would no longer be used to determine alumni satisfaction levels. Because these numbers previously impacted school ranking and student enrollment, schools must take a closer look at their engagement strategies. Were they only using programs to increase their performance metrics, or were they truly focused on creating connections with alumni to drive long-term engagement and philanthropic giving?

Reducing some of the competitive metrics within the higher education sector leaves some individuals feeling optimistic. Institutions can focus on fostering deeper connections with alumni that are more likely to engage rather than employing efforts to appeal to the masses – many of whom might not help propel alumni engagement efforts. After all, relationships aren’t transactional. They require trust and mutual respect, which need ample time to cultivate. However, schools must pay close attention to the effects that advanced technologies have on internal resources – they’ll ideally want to minimize or eliminate the need to pull back on resources such as staffing to accommodate new strategies.

Can Fundraising Campaigns Aid Alumni Relations Efforts?

Fundraising campaigns can be beneficial to institutions looking to enhance their alumni engagement and build their reserve of financial resources. Whereas philanthropic giving uses funds to support various school needs, fundraising campaigns are more laser-focused. Campaigns attract alumni who strongly resonate with the topic at hand. This can help drive more interest and lead to stronger connections with donors.

It’s important to note that schools should acknowledge all alumni that contribute to fundraising campaigns and not just major donors. Alienating "lower level" donors can deter them from making future contributions, leading to a decrease in alumni relations.

Integrating advanced technologies into your school's engagement strategies can seem daunting. Contact BrightCrowd today to learn more about bridging the gap and effectively enhancing community engagement in higher education.