Philanthropy & Education Spring 2021
“How’s the university doing?” I caught myself asking this as I chatted with an old friend who still worked at the institution I attended. I inquired about it as if I was asking about a dear mutual friend, and I was surprised to find that I intended it that way. The place meant a lot to me after all. I remember my experience as an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming (UW) as being filled with possibility, the freedom to try new things, and opportunities to forge life-long connections. Those connections included close friends, supervisors, professors, and even the institution itself. When the football team did well, I would celebrate like I somehow had a hand in throwing touchdowns. When UW experienced economic hardships, I would worry about it even though our formal educational transaction had long since passed. I even felt a little guilty about working at a different institution as I transitioned to a role at Colorado College (CC) in their alumni engagement program.
The conditions are equally personal at CC. I continually hear “How’s CC holding up?” when I meet with alumni. These connections are powerful, and I began to see that just like human relationships, they are two-sided, change over time, and need effort to maintain or grow. If the college’s efforts were done well, I would witness alumni recover long lost affections and become motivated to give back in meaningful ways. If these efforts failed, or if someone representing the school slighted alumni in some way, it was as if the college itself offended them personally.
I undertook this research project to gain a better view of how relevant theories are at work in the alumni’s relationships, and specifically, uncover the best ways to strengthen their affiliations. Understanding these connections has large implications for the college, and quite frankly, for the significant impact they can have on donations. Not only that, but the understanding also illuminates a possible pathway where alumni enthusiastically support their institutions, their affiliations grow, and they mutually benefit in the process.
In thinking through the study, I also felt it was important to focus on the stories told by both the college’s data and the individual alumni experiences. The advancement field is both an art and a science, and we ignore either aspect of the work at our peril. It is also not lost on me that the research was conducted in a pre-pandemic world. Even though the results are from a different time, I am fairly confident the findings will be helpful for those seeking guidance when evaluating engagement activities. The changing world is forcing long-overdue reflection on the fields of fundraising and alumni relations, and it is worth asking questions about what activities truly do grow affiliation and lead to long-term support. I enjoyed working on this project and hope it is helpful for those seeking a better understanding of the institutional relationship. I also want to sincerely thank the Philanthropy & Education editorial team for their support through the publication process.
Read Alumni Engagement and Identity: A Case Study on Beliefs and Behaviors (pp. 25-50) by Michael McNamee III For free for a limited time.