Inclusion, Not Solicitation: Chris Vlahos Recommends a New Approach to Alumni Outreach
The class of 2016 has graduated ready to take on a rapidly changing world—and they’ve been greeted with the same alumni outreach strategies that have been around for decades. In his keynote speech at the 2016 Council of Alumni Marketing and Membership Professionals (CAMMP) annual conference, Chris Vlahos, a senior consultant at fundraising consulting firm Marts & Lundy, discussed flaws in alumni associations’ traditional outreach techniques based on his experience at the Ohio State University Alumni Association and recommended a new message of value and inclusion instead.
Traditional mail, email and phone calls asking for money and offering membership benefits are no longer the most effective way to grow an alumni organization, Vlahos explained. Students are not only inundated with emails but also face a crushing amount of student debt: the average debt for the class of 2014 was nearly $29,000 per borrower, and 11.8% of the class of 2012 has already defaulted on their loans. Some alumni receive solicitations from their school at the same time that they receive their first loan statement, Vlahos pointed out, indicating a disconnect between alumni and the organizations reaching out to them.
Alumni associations must radically change, Vlahos said. Instead of relying on solicitation and membership dues, alumni associations should shift their efforts to engaging all alumni. He cited declining alumni association membership as an indicator of decreased value and recalled that his colleagues at Ohio State University found that many alumni simply did not understand why membership in the alumni association mattered. The organization responded with a shift from promoting membership benefits to promoting their scholarships, degree programming and teaching awards, which Vlahos insisted other alumni associations must do as well to reach a new generation.
Alumni associations ready to change their approach can start with four recommendations from the CAMMP keynote:
- Avoid language that connects membership with privileges – Instead of promoting the organization, it connotes exclusion and threatens to separate members from non-members. This is off-putting, not engaging.
- Avoid promising material rewards in exchange for joining the association – Vlahos regrets that his association at OSU promised a life benefit of two sports tickets yearly for all members. When demand outstripped supply they had to rescind the offer, leaving alumni dismayed and disappointed.
- Provide something meaningful – Even a simple digital newsletter can keep members connected to the university, and offering something meaningful and specific to the school is even better. A simple and free benefit helps an association maintain a dialogue with all alumni, not just the portion who are actively engaged.
- Emphasize alumni’s value – At OSU, Vlahos’s alumni association saw improved engagement when they accentuated how alumni could make the university stronger. Rather than offering tickets or other rewards, alumni associations should appeal to alums as partners in growing and improving the school.
Vlahos closed his speech by declaring that the most valuable thing alumni can offer their school is advice and advocacy. Associations that engage alumni, solicit their advice, welcome them as part of a community and honor them as advocates will forge a lasting connection with the latest college graduates.
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