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5 Mistakes in Setting Alumni Strategic Priorities — Avoid These Pitfalls Before Investing in Any Alumni Platform

Posted by Holly A. Phillips on Nov 4, 2019 8:54:38 AM
Holly A. Phillips

We wrapped up our five-part webinar series on #TheGivingEquation by talking with some of our most successful partners to see how they’ve embedded technology into their programming, incorporated a platform into the fabric of their culture, cultivated grassroots awareness, and set clear strategic goals to achieve true success.

For the entire series, we’ve focused on a simple equation to re-frame how we think about alumni engagement and university advancement:

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Alumni who see value from their alma mater via methods of genuine engagement are more likely to give back. Many universities seek technology to help them provide value and engagement for alumni, but it’s about finding the right platform for your needs — and knowing what red flags and missteps to avoid.

Our speakers were:

  • Jeff Minhas, Executive Director Alumni Relations at UC Irvine
  • Megan Frisque, Associate Vice President for Alumni and Parent Relations at Southwestern University
  • Jon Ruzek, Vice President of Engagement at the University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Matt Kelly, Business Development Manager at PeopleGrove and former Associate Director of Alumni Career Services at Georgetown University, hosted the webinar. The panelists kicked things off by sharing a little bit about their PeopleGrove platform implementations, which are each branded and designed for the specific needs of the institution.

Southwestern University’s community is called PirateConnect, and Frisque said they allowed their alumni members to vote on the name of the platform as part of their early investment into the system.

The Anteater Network at UC Irvine — the only Anteater mascot in the world — launched in February 2019 and currently has 6,000 users, which surpassed their year one goal.

The Maroon and Gold Network at the University of Minnesota is bringing the entire university community together. Over the last year, three of the colleges have migrated their mentor programs to the platform.

free-to-use-sounds-zXn-zUztOhU-unsplashThe panelists each had their own method for finding and researching different software solutions to reach specific goals. From their experiences, they outlined the five mistakes to avoid before investing in any alumni platform.

Mistake #1: Not Identifying Institutional Needs

Start your platform search by clearly outlining your goals. How do you define “engagement”? What do your alumni want from their alma mater? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you narrow the playing field.

Ruzek said he started searching for a platform in 2017 and was bombarded with all of the different options. He narrowed the list by eliminating features the University of Minnesota wouldn’t need.

“There will be several platforms that can do 700 things fairly well,” Ruzek said. “But especially with PeopleGrove, the flash mentoring part was the highest priority and just from doing benchmarking at the time and talking with colleagues already using PeopleGrove, I felt very confident that PeopleGrove could deliver that.”

Minhas was looking for a platform that would offer scalable alumni engagement and career resources, without replicating any other program or process that was already offered on campus.

Mistake #2: Not Prioritizing Alumni Desires

Minhas narrowed his search by focusing on the priorities for the alumni community at UC Irvine, including KPIs, features supervisors may be expecting, and organizational needs. It’s also important to consider any tools that may already be in place, such as a database or online marketing.

“It’s not a light investment and not something you should jump into,” said Minhas. “We took the approach of being very methodical and cautious about this. We didn’t find what we were looking for until we came across PeopleGrove — and after 15 different platforms, we saw that they had the cleanest, simplest user interface that focused on the tool we wanted, which was flash mentoring.”

Southwestern University alumni really want to stay connected to the institution and the students. Frisque said students wanted to talk to alumni but they wanted to connect on their own time, without barriers.

“We were looking for a system that could let us answer that call for them,” Frisque said.

A survey at the University of Minnesota revealed alumni wanted more from Career Services, including career development. Ruzek said having an alumni-to-alumni connection was important, so they could help each other with career advancement.

Mistake #3: Underestimating Functionality

The functionality of a platform can include its user experience, any custom options, and how often the platform is updated.

At Southwestern University, Frisque said their Center for Career and Professional Development and University Relations met on a weekly basis to go over different systems. It ultimately came down to a conversation with a colleague from Wellesley College, which also uses PeopleGrove.

“For us, it was really that partnership between the two departments coming to our own internal negotiations on what we were looking for and what would benefit our alumni population,” Frisque said. “PeopleGrove is really great at sharing their partners and it allowed us to dive a little deeper to see how it was working for those campuses and find out if it would be the best fit for us.”

Talking with other institutions that use PeopleGrove provided an insider’s look into the platform and the company.

“Sometimes a red flag is when a platform doesn’t list any higher education institutions that they’re working with, or it’s schools you’ve never heard of, or maybe they weren’t working with the main institution,” Ruzek said. “I would take that time to reach out to those who are using the PeopleGrove platform, or any other platform, and really do that due diligence.”

UC Irvine is only 54 years old, and their alumni base is younger than those from other universities and many haven’t participated in many of the university’s traditions, because those traditions have only been around for a few decades.

“We want to build a relationship with our alumni,” Minhas said. “Many of them had a fantastic experience here and they want to give back in a tangible way to help younger generations of Anteaters. We are now providing them with the easiest possible way through the flash mentoring on our platform.”

As for the platform’s user experience, Minhas said it was vital to make it as appealing as possible to get students and alumni involved, but it also had to be user friendly. Frisque said they were looking for something that was easy to navigate, no matter how computer savvy a user was. Being able to access and understand the analytics was also important, which was a contributing factor in their decision-making.

Mistake #4: Disregarding Data

Part of the research process for an alumni platform should be understanding what analytics are offered through the platform, what that data is going to show you and how those numbers will help you reach the goals you initially outlined.

At Southwestern University, Frisque said they use the numbers to guide their marketing efforts.

“We look at the messaging that gets opened, even which subject lines are working and that helps in our marketing,” Frisque said. “We also look at the times of day when people are most active on the platform and use that to our advantage.”

This spring, PirateConnect sent mentor matches out two weeks before spring break, so students might consider meeting with someone during the week off. Frisque said they saw a response rate they were happy with, and are planning something similar for winter break this year.

The University of Minnesota starts tracking engagement once a user completes their profile. Ruzek said they track messaging within the platform and are moving toward tying the engagement numbers to the gifts back to the university, and seeing if there is a correlation between users joining the Alumni Association.

“We know in general that if you’re the most engaged alum, you’re 38x more likely to give to the university,” Ruzek said. “We already see some of these data points validating what we feel, but the next phase will be to start testing that hypothesis with our PeopleGrove users.”

Mistake #5: Not Prioritizing Partnership

An alumni platform is more than just a software product — you’re adding a communications tool to your student and alumni community, and you shouldn’t go at it alone. Look for a true partnership that’s going to push you to reach your goals and guide you along the way.

In the evaluation process, the panelists were looking for a partner and not just a product. Ruzek said he asked questions about the customer service that would be offered during the launch and beyond. Ruzek and Frisque said PeopleGrove partners listed customer service as one of the main reasons to use the platform because they felt supported.

“PeopleGrove assigns a representative to do frequent check-ins with clients,” Minhas said. “We have a quarterly business review, sometimes in-person, where they push us on our goals. PeopleGrove has been great about pushing us and making sure we are aggressive, but realistic with our goals. It’s not for anyone’s benefit but our own, because they want us to be successful and I definitely feel that coming across. They made us feel like we made the right choice.”

If you’re interested in learning more about how our platform can connect your community, contact us today!