As we continue at Washburn & McGoldrick to help our clients navigate the new realities of engagement and philanthropy strategy, our blog this month focuses on enriching alumni engagement through digital and hybrid strategies. Chris Marshall, Consulting Partner and Founder & CEO of CMAC (Chris Marshall Advancement Consulting) provides expert advice to advancement operations and volunteer boards on innovating engagement practices and strategic planning for staff and volunteer boards. Later this year, Chris will be hosting a webinar as follow-up to this blog. We hope you will join us!

Chris Marshall

March 8, 2020.  That was the last day I slept in a hotel room or sat on an airplane.

This may not be too unusual for many people but for a higher education advancement consultant, it is unheard of!  A typical week is 3-4 nights in a hotel and 2-4 plane rides.  We are on the road, working face-to-face with clients, learning the culture of their institutions, building strong relationships, and – in many cases – making lifelong colleagues and friends.  We were on the ground, in person, and interacting with our most important constituents.  Sound familiar?

What happened to that road warrior lifestyle?

Like with everything and everyone else, COVID happened.

March 8th was 100+ days ago and I am certain – like many of you – it feels more like a century ago.  The in-person era is long gone!

Over the past four months, just like all of you in the alumni engagement industry, we have “pivoted” (pivot is my new favorite buzz word) to a digital approach and have – literally – Zoomed ourselves into the 21st century.

It has been rewarding and frustrating, liberating and challenging, and fun and maddening.  Despite the dichotomy, I have witnessed several examples of colleagues in the alumni engagement industry stepping up, leading, reimagining, and launching some of the most creative programming I have seen during my two decades in the business.

At the same time, I have seen many alumni engagement professionals REALLY struggling.  Fear, anxiety, and change has brought on paralysis, denial, and ostrich-like – head in the sand – behavior.  I have seen programs frozen in time, leaders waiting for things to go back to “normal”, and hoping for the return of a time when they can produce the same events that they have done year after year.

What has been the difference?  What are the common traits that thriving alumni engagement programs (and their leaders) possess that struggling programs (and their leaders) are lacking?

Here are five common ingredients across multiple clients that have created success in the digital realm during this new normal:

  1. Leadership with a vision – The team leaders in high-performing programs have taken the time to do serious strategic planning. They have inculcated enduring values into their program and established a guiding vision, mission, and set of priorities that dictate the work they do at any given period of time. Strategies, goals, and tactics are more easily adaptable when you have a clear sense of why you exist and what you need to do in order to live your mission.
  2. Trust among the leadership team – Right below the leader there are several other individuals who understand and live the values of the organization. They embrace the vision and mission and support their teammates.  THEY TRUST EACH OTHER!  Great work happens when trust is the foundation.
  3. Entrepreneurial culture – Imagine an alumni engagement program where all team members in the organization – top to bottom – are encouraged to experiment. They are rewarded for trying new things and are even given permission to fail.  How much have you learned from past failures – both professionally and personally?  In many cases, failures are the key to future success.  I know that has been true about my career. The highest performing, most agile, and progressive programs are the ones where failure is not only acceptable, it is celebrated.
  4. Three key words: Focus, Focus, Focus – While many alumni engagement programs have struggled to stay relevant across and up and down the entire organization, the top performing teams are just as busy as ever because they are focused. Instead of trying to do 25 things and do them just okay, the focused programs have clearly articulated 3-5 priorities to accomplish during this digital-only phase, and the entire team has – literally – done only those 3-5 things.  They stop everything else and get really good at delivering what is most important: value to alumni, content for professional development and personal enrichment, and increased access to the alumni network.
  5. Engagement metrics are being closely monitored – Alumni engagement numbers are up! The best programs are seeing an increase in the breadth of alumni engagement.  They are tracking, recording, and reporting these results to their campus leaders, advancement colleagues, alumni boards, and alumni councils. My favorite example is a client that conducted a Zoom webinar for alumni using a well known faculty member as a speaker on an important and current topic. If this university (in a dense metropolitan area) were to hold this event on campus, they normally would have expected 100-150 attendees. They moved the program on-line and 550 alumni attend the event. It was a huge hit! They lowered the barriers to engagement, saw five times the audience size, had no loss in quality, and had significant increases in first-time and diverse audience engagement. They know all of this because they tracked attendance, recorded it in their database, and reported it to demonstrate impact.

The combination of strong leadership, trusted teams, an entrepreneurial culture, a focused outcome-based approach, and commitment to metrics are leading to never-before-seen success in breadth of alumni engagement.  This is true across the spectrum – large public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, independent schools, and non-profits alike – they are not just surviving during COVID… they are thriving!

Give yourself and your program a grade for each of these five ingredients that must be present to achieve a successful digital pivot:

  1. Leadership
  2. Trust
  3. Entrepreneurship
  4. Focus
  5. Metrics

How do you grade yourself?  What can you improve?  How can Washburn & McGoldrick help you elevate your alumni engagement program?  Let us know your thoughts.  We would love to hear from you.

Please be safe, keep healthy, and stay focused!

Do you or your team members want to learn more from Chris Marshall about digital alumni engagement?

Washburn & McGoldrick will be offering “Implementing a Digital Engagement Approach (IDEA) Workshop” in September. In this two-part IDEA workshop led by Chris, learn how to plan, launch and evaluate your digital engagement strategy for the coming school year.

Hold the dates and times: September 15 and September 22, 12:00 – 1:30 p.m. ET. For more information or to reserve a space, please contact Jenna Reynolds.