The best case for strengthening alumni engagement can be found in the return on investment for authentic relationships. I walked into my office today and Mary Harris, the Dean of Students, stopped me to ask about my recent presentation to DIAP 2017. The Development and Institutional Advancement gathering of the Association of Theological Schools was a wonderful new experience for me. Yet, I was struck by the intentional connection Mary made, recognizing I'm not quite sure how she knew that I had presented last week. I left the focused exchange with gratitude for her ability to be present in the midst of very unsettling times. I was reminded of why she happens to be an alumni magnet and I reflected on the gifts of Kent Huyser, Gonser Gerber LLP, as he led a session about alumni engagement at DIAP.
Alumni Relations and Alumni Giving are not the same. I have known that for a very long time, but often people miss this very simple distinction. Alumni Relations are an essential part of school vitality. It is an affirmation that as educational institutions our students are forever part of our family. Through Alumni Relations we affirm their many gifts, we celebrate the best brand ambassadors that we have, and we embrace the importance of life long relationships. Our graduates are a testimony to seeds planted by professors and teachers, they give witness to the fulfillment of purpose and calling. Yet, there are so many individuals that mistake the importance of relationships as a code for donor cultivation.
It is true, those who care more deeply about your mission and vision give more. Those who understand the benefits of our educational institutions are poised to provide financial support. Any person who has had the opportunity to benefit from the generosity and philanthropy of others, is one step closer to recognizing why their gift matters. The ability to be present in a conversation and the necessity to be present for people in our midst is a gift. Those who have the natural gift of connectedness are often more relational and by habit, more consistent in how they express they care. Any institution that expects alumni to become supporters, but fails to celebrate their gifts and talents from the moment they take their first class is making a huge mistake. Money does not cometh to the inattentive and disconnected. Nor should it.
If there is any hope of increasing alumni giving at a school or institution, it will come from strengthening engagement and enhancing the experiences of our many constituencies. Alumni are such a special group of people, with first hand knowledge of why you exist, a command of what matters most, an understanding of the sacred in traditions and experiences, walking evaluation specialist of every professor or guest lecturer....they are authentic. If, in the strategic focus of our work, we honor the many diverse alumni gifts and experiences, it becomes a generous reflection of the institutions we serve. When student experiences are substandard or poor, we have an opportunity to shape a better experience based on the lessons that have been learned.
Alumni giving should be seen as a report card for the work that we do in alumni relations and the product we provide in educational training and preparation. When I am challenged by someone about why they have decided not to give, I often share one simple observation - our financial contributions are a tool of generosity, and a form of active engagement. When a giver shares with me their experience it is a call to action. Let us be grateful for all those that boldly share their gifts, for we indeed are enriched by their giving. And, when we are impacted by the decision not to give, let it be a call to action and a teachable moment for strengthening engagement. The reality is, without the gift of presence and the investment of resources, the ability to strengthen engagement is far too limited for the platform and priority it deserves.
The lesson....Connect to Give lacks integrity. It does not last and it does not fulfill. Connect to LIVE...it is the gift that keeps on teaching, keeps on building, and keeps on giving in meaningful ways. Be present. Listen. Learn. Together, we can invite alumni to give because of the power of their gift, Alumni Relations is a mandate. Alumni Giving is an opportunity.