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Anatomy of an Alumnus

August 2, 2010

A college looking to expand its donor base might not naturally look to Lauren Wong.

“I’m terrible at helping raise money,” concedes Wong, a 2010 graduate of Claremont McKenna College. “It’s not one of my strengths, but I am very good at listening to people.”

As it turns out, however, listening is all Claremont McKenna development officers want Wong to do. Wong is part of a cadre of current students and recent graduates who have been tapped to engage in an unprecedented alumni outreach for the college, which is using students to conduct hundreds of interviews with alumni young and old. The goal of the “Alumni Interview” project is to get feedback from graduates and potential donors on a variety of topics, including how they might prefer to be contacted – snail mail? E-mail? Facebook? The interviewers also want to know whether alumni are yearning for more interaction from Claremont McKenna or already feel overwhelmed by what they perceive as a barrage of calls and mailings.

After hour-long phone conversations, alumni interviewers like Wong hope to be able to tell the college something about what makes graduates tick. They’ll have a pretty good idea of what alumni's interests are, how they feel about the college and what might potentially motivate them to contribute. What the interviewers won’t ask for is a check. Indeed, student interviewers are explicitly told to let alumni know up front that the call isn’t a solicitation of funds – it’s an effort to better get to know graduates who may not have heard from the college in decades.

“I really liked sitting down and trying to figure out their psyche through the information I received,” said Wong, who now works as a strategist and trend spotter for a New York packaging and graphic design firm.

While the college hopes to learn about individual alumni, a broader goal of the interview project is to find recurring themes and trends among alumni who share certain characteristics. The college has commissioned a faculty member with statistical expertise to use the responses for the creation of a database, dividing interview subjects into 43 individual strata based on majors, professions and other factors. The hope would be that Claremont McKenna would have an idea of what interests and appeals to particular alumni – say female sociology majors who graduated in the 1990s.

“I think it will go down as one of the more significant things that’s happened in the development higher ed field for quite some time,” said Patrick Roche, Claremont McKenna’s director of annual giving.

While the college’s approach may prove significant, there’s no magic bullet, according to Donald Summers, who consults colleges about development strategies. While unfamiliar with the details of Claremont McKenna’s project, Summers said he would be leery of any strategy that tried to “automate” fund-raising through predictive formulas. Nothing replaces one-on-one human interaction, he said.

“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the old-fashioned tools, the ones that have been around for a hundred years, are still the best,” said Summers, director of Altruist Partners LLC.

Engaging Young Alumni

The alumni interviews at Claremont McKenna are but a piece of a larger alumni engagement strategy that is unfolding at the college at the behest of Pamela Brooks Gann, who has been president since 1999. The college has been at pains to stay in contact with younger alumni, who move around a lot and would rather connect with friends on Facebook than return to campus for a reunion.

“These people are seemingly dropping off the face of the Earth, and that’s not good,” said Roche, echoing concerns many development officers have about recent graduates.

Claremont McKenna is increasing its focus on young alumni, and Roche says the strategy already appears to have borne some fruit. The 10-year average giving rate, which is used to capture young alumni, was 45 percent in 2010, compared to 38 percent in 2009 and 39 percent in 2008.

Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said tracking down elusive "millennials" is a shared problem across higher education. Land lines and long-term home addresses are increasingly uncommon for this cohort, and that causes headaches for fund-raisers.

"The big issue is to really find and connect with people who live in a cell phone generation," she said.

Moreover, colleges are trying to respond to the fact that young alumni are more likely to support causes that are global in scope, Goldsmith said.

"Part of what we're hearing is educational institutions trying to shift their message to make clear higher education is a global cause," she said. "But we are hearing anecdotally that institutions are concerned about young alumni giving. It's an important concern to have, because giving when you're a young alumnus is more likely to lead to greater giving when you're an older alumnus."

To engage these young alumni, Claremont McKenna is launching a new program dubbed the Forum for the Future. The college will select about 10 percent of students from each of the most five recent graduating classes, appointing them as both ambassadors and consultants.

The college is seeking a diverse pool of students, hoping that the group of approximately 30 alumni in each graduating class will collectively have some friendship or social connection to each member of a class of about 300. To help ensure connections across alumni with varied interests and social circles, Claremont McKenna is assembling something akin to The Breakfast Club – a band of students that might include jocks, politicos and artists.

“It’s a great way to identify a group of movers and shakers and keep them involved and engaged,” said John Faranda, vice president for alumni and parent relations.

The college will solicit the students’ advice through social networking, online forums and online meetings. Additionally, Claremont McKenna will bring the students together at an annual meeting on campus, where they'll meet with administrators, faculty and development officers. The project’s $20,000 annual budget will help cover travel expenses for the forum members, and the college is also hiring a recent alumnus to organize the forum.

Roche calls the forum the “ultimate peer networking” tool. The goal is to reach beyond the traditional leaders who might have been involved in student government, finding a representative group that can become “standard bearers” of the college and help maintain connections to a diverse graduating class. While the endgame is to keep alumni connected to the college for future fund-raising or service, Claremont McKenna also hopes to groom young alumni for more prominent positions in the future.

“You might not think about whether someone is a good candidate for a trustee two years out of college,” he said. “We might have to start thinking along those lines now.”

There’s also a desire to keep alumni attuned to the developments at the college, in part so they won’t be wedded to the idea that the Claremont McKenna they remember is the way the college should stay forever.

“Alumni think their experience should be sort of fixed in amber and cherished,” Faranda said. “And one of our goals in alumni relations is to [show them] evolution is good for a college; it’s not really bad.”

 

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