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Leveraging CE Divisions to Drive Alumni Engagement

Re-engaging alumni can boost communication, add value to these learners’ lives and generate revenue. Institutions should begin to look at their CE division as the gateway into this new revenue tool. 

As the financial strings of higher ed are being pulled tight as a result of the pandemic, there’s greater pressure on fundraising departments to generate revenue for the institution. But they have a demographic sitting in their CE division student base that can be a part of the solution. An institution’s alumni base can not only be re-engaged as learners but also help generate revenue by staying on as lifelong learners. In this interview, Chris Bingley and Rob Green discuss how fundraising has been affected by the pandemic, how institutions can re-engage their alumni base in a highly effective way and the role Continuing Ed divisions can play in driving this alumni engagement. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is alumni fundraising trending, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Chris Bingley (CB): We’re definitely seeing strong engagement from donors. There have been institutions and organizations that have kicked off successful campaigns in the middle of the crisis. There has been some slow down in reaction time to address the needs that we all experienced. But at the same time, a lot of institutions pivoted quickly to help their students. They recognized the critical issues on their campuses, where some students need funds because they’re stuck and can’t go home and others want to finish the semester but can’t afford to due to on-campus employment being closed down. 

We saw all of these things happening. Some campuses have held off on campaigns while others have had to go ahead with plans because donors have already committed and are ready to go. It’s all been very mixed. I know that isn’t always the answer that the world wants. We want to go in one direction, and in this case, there was some negative stuff. Some of it had to do with how people reacted to a situation they didn’t anticipate. 

Also, there were already some challenges with fundraising in higher ed that were just exposed in a bigger way. The COVID-19 crisis didn’t cause the issues, but it forced us into a position to adjust. Some had to do that online, figure out how to engage people, how to use digital tools and what expectations we have with this now ever-changing relationship.

Rob Green (RB): Tied into that as well is the overall economy in the higher ed space. Students come out with a lot of debt, so affordability is a serious concern. All of this affects alumni, and In turn it’s going to affect their engagement. The money they can provide back to the institution will change drastically. That’s why it’s important for advancement and alumni offices to really innovate and come up with different ways for these students to re-engage.

Evo: Can you speak to what modern alumni expect in terms of the engagement with their alma mater and the approach that institutions generally take to serve them?

CB: There has always been an expectation to have an experience with the campus—you had to come back to campus, be on campus, do something with us. Maybe it wasn’t on the campus but elsewhere with the institution in other cities. Getting a lot of people to rally around a gathering or an in-person event was challenging before the pandemic. We shouldn’t completely trade out in-person for virtual events in the future, but we’ve now seen benefits and opportunities in strategic virtual events that can bring alumni together.  

It put us in the position to look at what we were going to do with the most important events. How much should we spend on them, and who do we focus them on? Another important area of engagement in terms of the business of fundraising is connecting face to face. The pandemic has allowed us to take a step back and analyze when we use travel, how we can be strategic and productive with it, and whether we can successfully talk with people through other channels. 

To be on top of your engagement with larger alumni groups, it’s critical to consider how you’re using a modern digital strategy—video, text message, telephone, email and social media. All of those components are now coming together because we realize that the communication goes two ways. 

Evo: How do you bridge that gap between alumni and the alma mater?

RG: There’s a great need for upskilling—nearly two thirds of Americans have thought about getting more education due to unemployment, underemployment or wanting to advance their careers. So, they’re looking to online for short-term education. They want courses, badges or online certificates rather than a full degree, which all tie in affordability, flexibility and on-demand self-paced options. 

Alumni are a built-in audience for the institution. They’ll be looking for this type of education based on employment data and where the workforce is headed. Institutions have the opportunity to re-engage past students and help them continue their education journey. The brand and relationship are already established and trusted, so they can add new value to these students lives by providing the right courses and programs to allow them to upskill or reskill and re-enter or advance in the workforce. 

Continuing Ed divisions are a great place to re-engage this group of learners. For those without CE divisions, it’s best to look at branching out to your community members and others who will be a part of your alumni family in some shape or form. 

Evo: What role should Continuing Education divisions play in supporting institutional relationship maintenance with its alumni base?

CB: At its core, every institution’s mission is lifelong learning, but when you graduate and walk over to the advancement office, there’s little talk about that engagement structure to achieve it—I liken it to the customer-for-life model. There are some important things we can learn from the customer model around how to create value, interact and provide opportunities that matter and keep relationships strong. 

I want to be thought of as a customer for life by my alma mater. Show me ways that you can provide value, that I can improve, that I can grow. What can my university do for me today? It’s all about value and opportunity. And what better way to do that than to truly embrace the delivery of additional learning opportunities for engagement that will ultimately build to philanthropy.  I’m not suggesting a quid pro quo scenario here, but again, I go back to creating value for your alumni. 

RG: Some schools have a full Continuing Ed division. They’ve been successful in the online space, and they get it. Many institutions are prevented from doing this because they don’t have the staff, and there are budget restrictions. They might have Continuing Education offerings, but they’re still in-person; they’re not able to tap into the virtual market. We’re really excited to do that for them and get them off the ground. We’re all about enabling them to do things for themselves. 

There’s a lot of need in the economy right now. Technology moves fast, and institutions must be able to provide their alumni that type of education. You don’t want to just put more in the top of the marketing funnel and hope for some to squeeze out of the bottom. It’s about creating the fly wheel and building customer engagement throughout the alumni life cycle. You want them to always feel engaged with your institution. Rather than starting at a donation, instead it could start with a great experience through your CE division that makes them want to donate or participate in other events in the future. 

CB: Having lived on campuses in different leadership positions, I know it can be hard to make these changes. There’s a lot of activity at every institution. Let’s not spend the next year talking about what it could look like but rather start working on putting our ideas into action. We have to be able to adapt to this new environment and accelerate through it when needed in order to make progress.  

Evo: Does Continuing Education start to take some pressure off fundraising to generate revenue for the institution?

CB: It certainly should, and that is definitely the way we’re seeing it play out. It’s certainly not the only revenue stream, because there are a lot of priorities on every campus, but it becomes another revenue tool. And that is important to both alumni and institution leaders who want to deliver on that lifelong learning mission. It’s critical to deliver that value and great experience, and this environment allows us to do that. 

RG: It’s also another way that you’re able to provide value to a customer. They might be less inclined to send a check, so this opens up an opportunity for them to gain something they need. Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on fundraising departments to do more during these tough times. It’s important to look at the different avenues that can help alleviate some of that stress while re-engaging learners. 

Evo: What are the internal relationships that need to be addressed in order for Continuing Education divisions to play a more active role in supporting alumni engagement?

RG: It comes down to the basics: good communication, having people who can speak to the need that exists within the Continuing Education space—people internal to the organization who understand where industry is going. Continuing Ed has been around for a while. Even in the online space, it was “Let’s stick that department in the corner and see how it goes” because there’s a reputation to protect; there was a brand on the line. But eventually, when that becomes a legitimate revenue source, you have to wrap it into the institution more meaningfully. It creates so many other interesting opportunities for the institution to adapt and change its delivery modalities. 

You need to engage alumni in the conversation and bring in the marketing and Continuing Ed teams—groups that have sometimes been siloed. Bringing them together can allow people to speak freely and generate ideas. It’s more difficult to do that in your silos, and you want that collaboration. It starts with the president, cabinet and board saying we should be really thinking about these things and challenging ourselves to deliver these services. Organizations can have key innovative employees, but strategically, it’s not coming from the top down. Those usually don’t work out in the long run.

CB: The work that we are promoting and encouraging through engagement is critical to the life of the institution, but it’s not in competition with what the academic side does. It’s an added value to the alumni base that could be in addition to what other divisions are doing from an academic perspective. It’s about finding a new way to deliver and open opportunity for all. 

RG: It’s complimentary where you’re seeing alumni interested in professional education certificates or badges. That’s the great thing about being innovative in higher ed: the time is now. Let’s be creative and stop putting ourselves into this box that we’re comfortable in. Let’s challenge the way that we’ve been doing things, because there is a great opportunity here to serve students and alumni differently.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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