Best Practices

Is The Alumni Relations Profession Under Threat?

Is The Alumni Relations Profession Under Threat?




May 24, 2021

Last modified: 

May 24, 2021

The title of this blog post casts an exceedingly gloomy shadow and rightly so. According to the 2020 VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study, for every 100 alumni relations professionals in 2017, there are only 82 in 2020. Add to the statistic, the devastating impact of the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has led to over 21 million Americans being unemployed across the country (Source: Within advancement, more specifically, it's the alumni relations staff that have suffered the most.

At this rate, the alumni relations profession is under threat. If you don't act now, all the incredible work done to engage your alumni over the years will be undone very soon and it would take years to get back on track.

Alumni Organizations

Why is the Alumni Relations Profession under threat?

While the pandemic has a major role to play as we all witnessed our colleagues and friends undergo forced furloughs and massive pay cuts over the last year, there’s more to it.

As more and more institutions adopt an integrated advancement office, the data clearly shows that there are fewer alumni relations staff available to devotedly work on alumni engagement.

The immediate need for donations is superseding the long term goals of cultivating alumni.

This is an alarming trend, something that we collectively need to work towards reversing. Donations are undoubtedly important for advancing institutions but if the focus on short term results continues, the future of Alumni Relations will be in jeopardy. It’s almost like we’re trying to force the fruit of the tree to ripen.

Alumni are the backbone of every institution and building lifelong alumni relationships is the greatest investment for any school, college, or university. With an increasing number of institutions now turning towards an integrated advancement office, the focus is rapidly shifting towards raising more money which is equivalent to short-term gains.

The question that you need to ask yourself is - can these short-term gains compensate the loss of lifelong alumni relationships?

Can Alumni Fundraising exist without Alumni Relations?

If you’re an advancement veteran, you probably are already familiar with the “4 R’s” of fundraising/development - Research, Romance, Request, and Recognition. This article by CASE cites the 4-R’s approach to discuss donor cultivation and stresses on the importance of fostering alumni relationships that last a lifetime.

To break it down further, the article states that 60% of the donor cultivation/fundraising process should be spent on ‘romancing’ i.e. building relationships with alumni.

The cultivation process
An excerpt from the article by CASE

While I go on stressing about the importance of engaging alumni over short-term fundraising, I also get this question a lot - How do I sustain my annual fund if I invest my time in building alumni relationships?

It is a valid question, even more so as institutions deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. Your annual fund needs replenishment and it must have taken a severe hit as you provided for your community during these testing times. Asking your alumni for funds as opposed to sending them an engaging mailer might look like the easiest and most reasonable thing to do at the moment. Last year alone, there were an abundance of emergency support fundraisers, urging alumni to step up and donate to their alma mater’s cause. But, how long until this cycle stops?

How long until your alumni get tired of your relentless fundraising appeals and ask to be placed on a ‘Do not solicit’ list?

According to the 2020 VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study, 46% of alumni organizations have at least 10% of their alumni who have opted-out of contact with their alma mater.

Scary, right?

Frankly, the price to be paid for over-solicitation simply translates to higher opt-out rates and various models only lead to confirm this fact. Here’s an analysis by Louis Diez, Executive Director, Annual Giving at Muhlenberg College which reinforces my thought “Stop chasing gifts; start building partnerships.”

Maximizing impact with minimal resources

To conclude, I hold nothing against an integrated advancement office. In fact, I believe an integrated office is a better model because it eliminates the data silos that we’ve all seen with independent structures. I’ve seen plenty of examples of highly successful advancement teams. It takes wise leadership to balance the present and future health of our institutions.

About the Author ✒️

Kalyan Varma

Kalyan Varma | CEO & Co-Founder of Almabase

Kalyan focuses on helping universities build lifelong relationships with their alumni by driving participation. He hosts the Almabase Spotlight Podcast, which showcases inspiring stories from Alumni Relations and Fundraising professionals. Kalyan has also delivered sessions at CASE and Blackbaud conferences.


1. 2020 VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study


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