The Biggest Challenge in Advancement? Alumni Data.

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If you ask a room of alumni relations and development professionals, “What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?” you’ll probably hear a variety of responses. Some common replies include: communicating with alumni through new and evolving platforms, identifying prospects with capacity and inclination to give, and positioning their schools as relevant and central entities in the lives of key constituents.

It all comes back to data.

Having accurate, up-to-date contact information for alumni, donors, and friends is absolutely central to all that we do as advancement professionals. It’s the bedrock for effective communication, thriving events, prospect identification, targeted donor outreach, and ongoing engagement and stewardship.

In my role, I work with a lot of recent college graduates—a very mobile group. Often, their email addresses, local addresses, and employment details are not up-to-date with their alma mater. This generation changes jobs every 16 to 24 months and moves on a regular basis. The likelihood of young alumni letting their alma mater know about each career/life move is slim. Thus, schools are left with scant and outdated information about their base of recent grads and future supporters. This is true for older alumni as well, whose moves are sometimes not captured in the alumni database. (This leads to the awkward case of a senior executive whose alma mater believes is still a “marketing coordinator” with an AOL.com email address that was last active circa 2001.)

Bad data presents all sorts of problems.

 

If we have an inactive email address on file for an alum, we can’t communicate important university news and relevant announcements. The alum doesn’t hear from the school, leading to disengagement.

If we have an out-of-date local address, we may send announcements and event invitations to the wrong market. For instance, we may think that an alum lives in Chicago when he really moved to New York three years ago. He will keep receiving invitations to Chicago-area alumni events, oblivious to all the great programs happening in New York. This is a huge missed opportunity, and also leads to disengagement.

If we have inaccurate career information, we won’t be able to target streams of information and event invitations. For example, we may think that an alumna who majored in biology should be invited to alumni events related to science. However, we don’t know that she pursued an MBA and became an investment banker five years ago. This, again, leads to incorrect targeting and limits our ability to make a relevant, value-adding connection.

From the development perspective, having inaccurate data might lead to overlooking someone with significant capacity to give.

So what does this mean for frontline alumni relations professionals and development officers?

I’ll tell you what it means for me: I spend a lot of time doing manual research on LinkedIn. If I’m organizing an event to celebrate alumni who work in the financial sector in New York City, I’ll run a variety of searches to pinpoint relevant alumni to invite. LinkedIn’s Advanced Search is my best friend. I’ll usually search by a combination of fields: Education, Industry, Job Title, Company, and Location. These searches yield tremendous insights, often unearthing names of alumni who would never have come up through traditional database research.

What I hear from many advancement professionals is that a lot of our time gets spent, collectively, on this type of manual fact-finding—discovering that Martha hasn’t worked at Microsoft in five years, or that George moved from San Francisco to Portland, or that Isabel was promoted to Senior Vice President at her company.

 

I can’t help but wonder what our profession would look like if we knew that we were working with the most accurate data available. Instead of digging through LinkedIn or trying to validate contact information, time could be spent crafting personalized outreach messages and doing more sophisticated cultivation activities. Audience development for events would be so much easier; emphasis could be placed on strategic pre-event communication and nuanced follow-up with attendees. Development officers could find out immediately about important life changes with their prospects and have the opportunity to follow-up.

Having accurate data doesn’t just make life easier for advancement personnel; it frees up resources and creates opportunity for more strategic, high-level work in engaging alumni and generating support for our institutions.

Click here to learn how EverTrue’s software integrates with LinkedIn to give you better alumni data.  

Dan Klamm is Director of Young Alumni Engagement for the NYC office of his alma mater, Syracuse University. He has six years of experience across higher education career services, alumni relations, and marketing. Feel free to connect with Dan on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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