Are You Missing Advancement’s Most Important Metric?

Counting Fingers

I recently became a dad and have rediscovered the simple joy of counting with my son.

Counting is easy. Counting is fun. Counting is satisfying.

Counting is also elementary. It is not a means to an end nor representative of any particular outcome. As any mathematician will tell you, counting something simply confirms its existence—nothing more, nothing less.

Why is it, then, that when it comes to engagement, advancement is so obsessed with counting things?

Even the CASE Commission on Alumni Relations in its ongoing project to define engagement metrics and standards for the profession has fallen victim to the appeal of counting. The best practice emerging from this group and consultants in the industry is a recommendation to measure engagement by counting alumni behaviors. The formula follows something like this:

  • Count the number of alumni association members
  • Count the number of donors
  • Count the number of event attendees
  • Count the number of volunteers

Now add these up, then subtract the people who are counted more than once, and—voila!—you have demonstrated the institution’s value in engaging with constituents.

That’s not good enough.

Research into the antecedents of alumni giving at a large West Coast university (Netzer, Lattin, & Srinivasa, 2008), a major Midwestern university (Durango-Cohen, Torres, & Durango-Cohen, 2013), and a mid-size public university on the East Coast (Stephenson & Bell, 2014) found these institutions were woefully and overly reliant on counting alumni behaviors as a means to predict alumni giving.


Employing counting as a primary metric of advancement fails to reveal anything useful about the people who are counted.

Counting alumni behaviors doesn’t shed light on who alumni are, where they are, or what they are doing, and falls completely short of demonstrating what actions a college or university might take to increase engagement among alumni who are less connected.

Counting turns alumni from real people into mere numbers.

A review of the current literature on higher education philanthropy suggests that advancement is missing its most important metric, one that could:

  1. Measure true engagement levels of each graduate,
  2. Serve as a predictor of that graduate’s inclination to donate, and
  3. Respond to direct institutional intervention.

Alumni Role Identity (“alumni identity”) is that meaningful advancement metric that colleges and universities need.

Different from counting alumni behaviors, alumni identity is a psychometric alumni attribute rooted in social psychology. Alumni identity reveals how deeply a graduate’s connection to their alma mater is manifest in their own self-concept and the degree to which their perception of themselves as an alumna/us is a salient part of who they are.

And here’s the good news. Recent studies conducted at the University of Kentucky and the University of San Francisco show that increased alumni identity is both positively associated with giving and open to influence through direct institutional actions (Dillon, 2017; McDearmon 2011, 2013).

So what goes into alumni identity? How is it measured? What can colleges and universities do to influence it? Where do we chart the course in using alumni identity to increase philanthropy?

Join me as we explore these and other questions as part of a six-part series on the factors and characteristics of alumni identity and alumni giving.

Set your expectations high.

You won’t be disappointed.

Click here to go to part 2 of our alumni identity series.

Looking to identify social interactions, enhance engagement scores, or quantify alumni identity? We can help with that.

Read Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon’s entire series on alumni identity.

Part 1: Are You Missing Advancement’s Most Important Metric?
Part 2: The Story Behind Giving Has Little to Do With 1s and 0s
Part 3: Digital Engagement ≥ Event Engagement? Yes.
Part 4: Meaningful Volunteer Experiences Are Best, But Far Too Few
Part 5: Data-driven Prospect Discovery Needs to Include Graduate Feelings of Connection
Part 6: Raising Alumni Identity Raises Dollars

Need more? Connect with the author…

@jayldillon on Twitter

Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon is a social scientist and higher education advancement executive whose research focuses on broadening and measuring institutional value and impact among college and university alumni. He has served as Director of Alumni Engagement at the University of San Francisco and as Executive Director of Alumni Strategic Initiatives at UCLA. Jay is dedicated to improving philanthropy through data science in order to bring social justice and equity to education. He holds a doctorate in organization and leadership from USF and a master’s and bachelor’s degree in music from UCLA. Jay is a native of Riverside, California.

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