This series of short conversations with advancement leaders gives us a peek into exciting new projects, the challenges facing our industry, and the future of fundraising.
In this chat, Christine Tempesta, senior director of information systems and volunteer services at Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), talks about the struggles (and necessity!) of dealing with data, how MIT is bringing new levels of personalization to its alumni site, and how the changing nature of education will require schools to invest in both virtual and face-to-face engagement.
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Introduce yourself in 50 words or less.
I am a strategist, problem-solver, and ardent fan of technology. I believe in community built both face-to-face and online; my daily work focuses on establishing meaningful interactions between alumni, students, faculty, and staff. I am a continuous learner—I like to take online courses, try new projects, and get involved in things where I can learn new skills.
What’s one thing you’re working on now that excites you and why?
We are working on redesigns of our web properties. We are looking to make the giving site for MIT focused on the transaction, so that people can get to giving more quickly and get through the transaction process with ease, on any device. On both the giving site and the general association site, we’ll be using personalization to enhance the visitor’s experience, and to surface the information they want and the tools they need—without making them click all over the place and guess at navigation.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in advancement during your career?
The biggest change I’ve seen in the 20 years is the way that alumni engagement and alumni relations gets measured.
I’ve been a proponent of measurement systems, since the health nonprofit I came from had solid measurements for everything, beyond just the dollars and donors. When I landed in academia and asked initially about the measurements/indicators of a “good alumni club,” I was told, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
I think there remains a fair amount of skepticism of engagement measures, their impact on relationship building, and as some would say, ultimately, on fundraising. Moreover, there isn’t agreement among advancement professionals on what should be measured, so benchmarking can be difficult and misleading. Dollars and donors are just super clear, and those measures, along with participation metrics, have been the understood language of fundraisers for quite some time. It would be great if the rest of the advancement team had similar clarity.
What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
My biggest challenge is data.
While we have great systems in place here at MIT, with 95% of our alumni addressable, getting high-quality data into our database of record from a variety of sources is always a challenge. We have self-service for alumni, students, and friends, so they can update their own data, but we also have a plethora of feeds from a variety of systems that have to be maintained. We also have new audiences—for example, we recently automated ways to gain information about post-doctoral students during their employment at MIT. They are a unique audience who want access to the MIT Alumni Association products and services. I expect we’ll see growing interest in recording friends who don’t receive degrees from MIT but who will take an MITx course or courses online.
Picture the advancement industry 10-15 years from now. Where are we headed? Where should shops focus their energy now to get to that future?
In 10 to 15 years, I suspect some schools will become obsolete and will have closed their doors because the education they provide, both on campus and online, is a better financial deal and higher quality elsewhere. I think that colleges and universities will muddle the lines between on-campus and online learning, and I think that the advancement shops who will do best will continue to invest in virtual engagement as well as face-to-face.
I think that student debt is outrageous (Can you tell I am the proud parent to a 23-year-old college grad with a boatload of debt?), and I think advancement shops, if they want to have future donors, should work on student debt issues today.
I would urge anyone in our business (ICYMI) to read the Bloomberg article “What is Code?” and reflect carefully on how they are continuously expanding their own technical skills. In our business, I don’t think opting out of social media or refusing to gain enhanced technical skills is an option. I’m trying to figure out what hardware and software we will need for the future and how to budget for it.
I am also really interested in diversity and inclusion. We won’t continue to do well unless we make our alumni associations diverse, and perhaps more importantly, inclusive and welcoming to a variety of different types people, from different places and different backgrounds.
This interview was conducted by Mike Nagel, associate director of advancement communications at Phillips Exeter Academy.