My dentist in Las Vegas was Eric Lac. Eric is a UCLA undergrad who went to Boston for his dental degree. He is an avid Bruin fan, and because I have bad teeth, we visited frequently. Most of our conversations involved football, but one day it turned to my fund-raising responsibilities as Dean.
Eric noted that he had never given money to UCLA, but that he contributed significant sums to his graduate institution. I expressed surprise. Most alum’s strongest affinity is with their undergraduate institution. Eric replied that UCLA had never even asked him for money, but that his graduate institution had gone to great lengths to build strong relationships with their alums. He said the program had always told students that they would guarantee the value of their degree after graduation and that they kept that promise. Eric had several concerns when setting up his practice in Vegas, so he called his alma mater and got his questions answered by faculty within 48 hours. He went on to comment: “That was really impressive. The school was there when I needed them and I was grateful for that.”
That conversation stuck with me. One lesson involved UCLA’s failure to contact Eric. But, it was his graduate institution’s commitment to the continuing value of Eric’s degree that got me thinking the most.
As Dean, I have seen first-hand the value of developing strong relationships with alumni. A motivated alumni base is a dean’s biggest asset. Alumni can help raise money, mentor students, educate the community about the importance of higher education and the value of their degree, as well as hire graduates. That is why I have worked closely with alumni associations and try very hard not to miss their board meetings or events.
But alumni associations are having a crisis of purpose: the struggle has been to develop a compelling value proposition that strengthens relationships and motivates participation. Most alumni associations try to leverage affinity around college athletics to build awareness, solicit memberships and encourage active participation. In short, they plan “fun” events largely around game day where alums can network with other alums. They also give you a magazine that touts the university’s accomplishments and lets you know what other alumni are doing.
But people didn’t go to college to follow sports teams. And even if they did, they can plan or attend fun events on game day without joining the alumni association. Alums also think, perhaps incorrectly, that LinkedIN is now the most effective way to network for professional gain (they are wrong, but that is a different blog post). They can also find out all they could possibility want to know about what is going on at their alma matter through a quick google search.
The point is that the alumni association offers nothing of unique value and so participation in the organization is seen as a “gift” by alumni to their alma matter. In fact, many universities have stopped charging an annual membership fee because alums confuse it with a donation …something the university would prefer to ask for separately.
But what if instead of focusing on fun and affinity, the alumni association met my dentist Eric’s need and became a vehicle for guaranteeing the continued value of a graduate’s degree? This would be a very different kind of alumni association, with a very different type of staff and set of activities. What do you think alums? Is this a better alumni association, one you see value in? What would you like to see it do? Feedback please?