Connected Campuses: Reimagining the Alumni Engagement Model with CRM

April 23, 2019 Monika Burchfield

What is an Alumni Engagement Model?

An alumni engagement model is a framework for managing expectations of students who graduate from University, and in some cases, those who attended but didn’t earn a degree. While both undergraduate and post-graduate students are considered alumni, most universities struggle to engage post-graduate alumni because they identify with their undergraduate alma maters. 

How can CRM improve the Alumni Engagement Model? 

Creating authentic two-way relationships is critical in alumni relations and fundraising. A CRM creates a single source of truth - one place to record, recall, and report data related to your constituents.

A CRM replaces spreadsheets, disparate databases, and notes on the back of napkins and Post-its. And once all your sources of information are in one place, automated workflows can assist with efficiency and manage larger volumes of constituent data.  

What is an Advancement Office? When did the AO emerge and why? 

University, think, school, and other words against a white and red background

Universities have connected with their alumni dating back to the late 1800s; alumni funds for support were introduced in the early 1900s. Institutional advancement, an integrated approach to engaging constituents through alumni relations, marketing and communications, and fundraising, dates back to the 1970s¹. 

Colleges and universities have grown into powerhouse brands. These institutions are no longer just teaching; today, their scope of practice has extended to research, student life, performing arts, and athletic activities.

Beyond that, there are more voices seeking representation within academic institutions, including: 

  • Individual Departments
  • Interdisciplinary Programs 
  • Colleges’ and Deans’ Offices
  • Auxiliary Revenue Generators (e.g. performing arts center or athletic programs)
  • Radio Stations (if campus owned/operated) 
  • Cultural Houses
  • Housing and Student Life
  • Student Organizations
  • The President’s Office
  • External Affairs and Communications
  • Government Relations (e.g. public schools)
  • Alumni Associations and Affinity Organizations
  • Advancement and Fundraising

And we can’t ignore the practical: veterinary and medical clinics, extension programming, career offices, or (in the off chance) an agriculture program with food science and meat, dairy, and produce lab that serves the local community. 

Wish, Wonder, and What If? 

The link between Communications and Advancement in Higher Education. 

External Affairs teams have evolved into content creators. Their reimagined marketing and communications approach increasingly focuses on journalistic storytelling and social media engagement, paid and organic ads, website traffic, and email campaign performance. 

But despite these shifts, communications teams are still often left in the dark about the behaviors, interests, and actions of their constituents. 

For example: Are they sending content to an existing donor? A parent? A local season ticket holder? 

While these teams may have certain insights into how users behave, including what they read on a website, whether or not they open emails, or if they use branded hashtags on social media, often they don’t have a system in place that can tie that information back to an individual donor or prospect. 

Just down the hall (or sometimes the street depending on the size of your institution), the Advancement and Alumni Relations office has grown exponentially to address the increasing expectations of alumni and donors. 

Advancement offices maintain the closest version of a single source of truth about a constituent, including transactional giving information, graduation dates, interest information from surveys, and other customer intelligence to solicit a fairly narrow call to action: the act of making a gift. 

Not all alumni are donors, and not all donors are alumni. 

According to the 2017 Council Aid Report, one out of every four dollars comes from an alumnus.² (However, it’s important to note that Donor Advised funds aren’t counted as alumni giving in this survey, so alumni dollars may be higher). 

The CTA is Still the Same: Make a Gift

Macbook, ribbons, cards, and gift wrap and hands at a Macbook making a gift with CRM

While there are many ways to accept a gift: online, by mail, over the phone, wire transfer, or through an app, the call the action stays the same: Make a Gift. 

Often units are too siloed in their approaches, channels, and social handles to come together around what a friend, donor, or ticket holder sees.

The larger the school, the more likely this translates to hundreds of professionals who dream, create, build, execute, and analyze the results of multiple, simultaneous campaigns that may or may not be clearly defined, easily measured, or even guide users to a particular action. 

Too often there is a batch and blast mentality. College announcements or the appointment of a new dean or president are seldom treated as part of a campaign.

That's where a CRM comes in...

A CRM can increase collaboration between teams with different goals and help them better understand user behavior data to drive smarter, more effective communications. A CRM can also help inform fundraisers about donor interests and help communications teams gain insights into performance to create even more compelling content. 

Their Wish

The institutions I work with are often tackling big topics and lean on our strategy consultants and business architects to start conversations around CRM capabilities. 

Odd right? Well, not really. 

Our customers share their wish lists, pain points, and their current relationship with their technology as well as their vision for moving forward.

They paint beautiful pictures of connected campuses where information about a new student is connected to their alumnus record - so that years down the road, the same student (who is already integrated into the institution’s ‘Make a Gift’ campaigns and communications) can make a gift any time post-graduation. 


My clients often wonder how to use their user data, insights, and interests to create and share stories their audiences care about. 

They ask me: Is there a way to be more like popular consumer brands?

Or,  I’ve often heard them say: “We should be like [insert a brand/service].”

They’re aware of the importance of becoming more ‘customer-centric” - especially since alumni expect them to know, engage with them, anticipate their needs, and delight them along the alumni/donor continuum. 

What If...

  • What if we could combine the spreadsheets, access databases, handwritten notes, and siloed databases across campus? 
  • What if we knew alumni regularly visited the performing arts schedule but didn’t purchase a ticket?  
  • What if we knew about the young alumnus who returns to campus to recruit for his company?
  • What if we knew that alumni clicked to learn more about ways to give, but didn’t make the first gift yet? 
  • What if we could showcase the impact of each gift and put it towards what our donors think matters most?

A proper CRM solution enables these capabilities; it doesn’t shackle workers to an outmoded or inefficient system that doesn’t make sense. Instead, it makes data accessible to anyone within your organization who needs it, when they need it.  

What can a CRM do for my institution? 

  • Create homepages with a dashboard of proposals for a development officer
  • Build dashboards that highlight engagement activity for an alumni association director
  • Give a communications manager insights into newsworthy alumni stories and trends 

But more important than a CRM solution -  is the strategy and collaboration behind it. If it was easier for individuals both inside and outside your institution to come together about a specific interest, topic, or activity - imagine the results of increased engagement and affinity. 

What would you do with alumni who want to assist with first-year retention rates for newly admitted students?

What about alumni who want to give back in form of internships or jobs to recent graduates from the same school?

The connected campus is not a dream - it’s possible with thoughtful planning and guidance from those who can ask the right questions to help you turn those ‘What Ifs’ into reality. 

Catch Appirio on your favorite social media platforms and tell us what you wish your CRM could do to help manage alumni relationships. 






About the Author

Monika Burchfield

Monika Burchfield joined Appirio after nearly 20 years of professional practice as a nonprofit executive. Over her career, she's raised millions for education, youth programs, and health and social services. In 2018, she earned her CFRE (Certified Fundraising Executive) designation and holds a Masters and Bachelors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over her career, she’s volunteered to develop reporting, database training, and user adoption efforts at every opportunity.

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