It has been my good fortunate to serve as the president of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania for the last five years. The value of alumni in helping a university reach its fundraising goals cannot be underestimated. Beyond their ability to donate funds and to develop an endowment, alumni are also an important constituency for the president to cultivate. In fact, as has been demonstrated in the tenures of several college presidents, alumni can be important supporters (or detractors) of the president and can help sway public opinion at difficult times in a presidency or in the life of an institution.
Even though we use the word “alumni,” it is clear the alumni constituency of any institution is not a monolithic group. Rather, like our national political spectrum, there are factions of alumni who view issues depending on their age, their experiences since graduation, and their location from the institution. This range of interests and views can also be beneficial to a higher education institution. There is an understanding among most college presidents that you want to cultivate alumni for a range of contributions from bipartisan political advocacy to volunteer leadership in fundraising campaigns. Successful alumni affairs offices at colleges attempt to understand the range and interests of alumni and employ the “right” alumni for specific projects that advance the institution.
Moreover, in addition to their role as advocates for the institution, alumni also hold the special role of serving as products or outcomes—signifying the educational and intrinsic values of the institution. Thus, alumni help to define the legacy of the institution by the accomplishments they achieve after they have graduated. Institutions often point to their talented and accomplished alumni to demonstrate the contributions to society that they have helped to furnish. Thousands of highly placed and visible alumni, make it easier for an institution to claim more value added. For some institutions, like Harvard and Yale, who have presidents of the United States of America among their alumni, the accomplishments of their alumni enhance their image, allow them to be more selective in admissions, and probably influence the perceived value of prospective students.
There are also other characteristics of alumni that influence their interactions with the institution and the president. One is distance from the university. Alumni who live near their alma mater tend to visit the institution more often and sometimes become more knowledgeable of, and more involved in, events and issues at the university. Another is the current connection that the alumni have with the university. If one of their children or family members is attending the university, then alumni also tend to be more intimately involved in the inner workings of the university. Retired alumni, who live close to the institution might also volunteer or participate in more campus activities and homecoming events.
Regardless, it is very important for the leadership team at a university to be aware of the various levels of interactions and knowledge of alumni when they are courting alumni for fundraising and other activities. Not surprisingly, alumni who have heard negative reports about the university in the press or through their network of friends and other contacts are going to be less likely to contribute funds to the university or to serve as positive advocates. Moreover, alumni who have children or relatives attending the university who are experiencing difficulty with specific offices such as financial aid are also going to be reluctant to contribute to, or advocate for, the university.
Usually, the university can control the image of the university more with alumni who live farther from the institution through the alumni website, direct mail communications, and the alumni magazine. If distant alumni are thanked for their contributions and can see their names in the alumni magazine, they are usually positively influenced.
How does the leadership team cultivate the various groups of alumni for fundraising and support for the mission and goals of the university? This is indeed the million dollar question—pun intended. Since alumni are important constituents of the University, it is important to keep them apprised of the achievement of goals of the university, and it is equally important for the president or vice president for institutional advancement to meet regularly with various alumni groups to keep them apprised of stories of the current students and the needs of the University.
We have all read that in order to secure a large gift from an alumnus you have to determine the interest of the alumnus and their desire to leave a legacy. Unfortunately prospective alumni who can become major donors are not always clear, or might not have been that introspective, about what they really want to leave as their legacy for the institution. My six years as a college president (including the one year at Winston-Salem State University) lead me to believe that the president or designee might spend considerable amount of time attempting to determine what exactly interests or compels the alumnus to make a significant donation. Ultimately, courting a donor is a long process that may or may not lead towards a major gift. The courting is more akin to the establishment of a key relationship that must be maintained and expanded, as appropriate.
Someone once stated to me that alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) are more passionate about their universities because of their interactions with faculty and staff, because of the opportunities the institution provided them to transition into a middle-class lifestyle (when they might have been excluded from other colleges), and because of the lifelong friends that they still maintain from the collegiate experience. A brief scan of articles regarding alumni and the tenure of college presidents of HBCU’s reveals the tenuous relationships that can exist between alumni and the leadership of a HBCU.
The relationship between HBCU alumni and the college leadership does not seem necessarily to correlate with the value of monetary and other contributions to the college or university. Rather, in some regards, HBCU alumni seek to protect, and to memorialize the experiences they believe exemplify “their university.” Conflicts between alumni and the president and college leaders seem to occur when the institution appears to be drifting from the treasured memories of the alumni.
Alumni of HBCU’s also are on an upward trajectory in giving back to their alma maters. In order to encourage, increase, and continue the positive feelings and advocacy that can come from the alumni, it is extremely necessary for the president and leaders at the institution to develop long term positive relationships with a range of alumni, so that the alumni/university relationships can weather the storms of negative press.
As a college president, I have enjoyed meeting with members of the various alumni associations of Cheyney University. Each class or group is like a window into the past of the university. By attending their various class alumni events, I learn about the very transitions in the university’s history from people who lived through them and helped to create some of these evolutions. All of their memories and their connections are the legacy of the institution. When they are recalling their stories of “what it was like when,” it is the perfect time to remind them of the new generation of leaders who need advocates, scholarships, and guidance.