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Friend or Foe? Three Ways Donor Relations can Collaborate with Alumni Relations

Alumni relations and donor relations are rarely part of the same reporting lines. They are almost never managed holistically, together, as one cohesive approach. Heck, most of the time they aren’t even at the same tables or in the same rooms. Donor relations professionals don’t consider alumni relations their natural partners and vice versa.

But this is actually quite detrimental to our work and the overall alumni and donor experience. Alumni and donor relations are two sides of the same coin and ultimately have the same goal—to engage, build affinity and loyalty, create positive experiences, and inspire giving or volunteerism in a variety of ways.

However, in order to break down the barriers between these two teams and work effectively together, we have to let go of the old stereotypes. Alumni relations is not all about athletics, swag, and tailgates (though they can throw a killer party), and donor relations isn’t always elitist, report laden, or inflexible in their approach (though they can create a beautiful impact report).

You know the old saying, “it takes all kinds”? Well, that’s DR and AR together in a nutshell—covering all the bases and when working together in tandem, they’re moving alumni to be prospects and then donors and then often our most committed philanthropists and advocates. It’s effective and beautiful when DR and AR are working well together.

Unfortunately, it's taken many of us in the industry a long time to realize this, and then even more time to figure out how to actually put it into practice. That’s why I asked Chuck Arnold, Executive Director of Marketing and Communication and former Executive Director of Alumni Relations at the University of Houston, to co-author this blog with me.

Chuck and I were counterparts at UH and our teams were ultimately aligned together under the same engagement umbrella. There were times over the years that we struggled to understand each other’s perspective. We sat at the same table, but used different terminology, or planned events in different styles, or approached communications with very different tones. But ultimately, we knew we were working on the same end goal and found ways to partner in our work and build on each other’s outcomes. We ultimately became great partners and continually sought out ways our teams could better each other as well the overall experience we were providing our external constituency.

Beyond simply starting the conversation with your counterparts, Chuck and I want to share our top three favorite partnership and collaboration ideas for alumni and donor relations teams to start the process:

  1. Survey says! Number one, by far, is to become surveying best friends! Alumni relations teams are some of the best surveyors out there and likely have many outlets already existing that donor relations can tap into (and are more likely to get high response rates since their audience is not always asked for gifts). Ask if you can add a pressing question or two to their next round of surveys! Ask to review results and data for interesting trends that give you engagement insights (event interests, compelling programs and areas of interest, favorite traditions, how and when they want to receive communications)! We have partnered on several surveying initiatives and our different perspectives have ultimately made a more well-rounded and effective survey that provides deeper, actionable insights. And then we both benefitted from the results in our own ways! If you are a higher education organization, you are likely knee deep in reporting CASE Alumni Engagement metrics, and alumni relations probably has a significant role in this. AR can teach/guide donor relations on analyzing these metrics and then use the data to influence DR business decisions. (Chuck is a CASE metrics genius and has taught me a TON in this space that I took back to my own work.) Imagine the possibilities when you have visibility at the individual alumni/donor record level and can know exactly where they are engaging beyond just the gifts they make. In particular, developing an engagement scoring system using all engagement metrics (philanthropy, volunteering, communicating and experiential) will tell you exactly where you need to engage individuals.

  2. Evenings and Weekends! Another great way to collaborate and capitalize on in-person experiences is to volunteer at each other’s events. Because guess what? Chances are 80% of your attendees are both alumni and donors—your target audience and most influential attendees are the same! Expand the volunteer pool (who doesn’t need more event workers anyways?) and work a tailgate, recognition society event, corporate luncheon, awards gala, campaign impact event…anything that will expand your knowledge of the work your organization is doing AND give you the opportunity to interact with alumni and donors! Jump in and offer a helping hand wherever needed. When we became one team at UH, Chuck and I made sure staffing was spread out and team members from both areas worked everything from donor galas to ring ceremonies to VIP building namings. Everyone chipped in and felt a part of the larger mission as well as an appreciation for their colleagues across the aisle.

  3. Social Partners! The truth is, alumni relations teams tend to have the broadest reach and often most compelling content for the masses on their social channels. While advancement/development communication channels can be effective storytelling platforms when managed well, they typically have far less adoption and subscription rates than traditional alumni channels. We understand why this happens fundamentally, but that doesn’t mean they have to exist in silos and drive separate messaging and/or strategies. Feed each other! Create shared content calendars around high profile events and initiatives, cross-share posts and breaking stories, tag each other and drive traffic both ways. There is no downside to this for your organization because again, 80% of your audiences are one in the same! By creating waterfall content in tandem that can be used across web pages, news releases, social media, and other digital and print assets, you are capitalizing on all resources, increasing impressions to drive engagement, building both audiences, and saving staffing, time, and money.

There are many other ways, big and small, that alumni and donor relations can partner together to engage our mutual audiences—and we'll be sharing more in the future. But it takes openness, creativity, and willingness to reach across the table. Imagine the possibilities if we say “what can we do together” instead of “this is why we can’t work together”! Sometimes it takes the right team dynamic, or the right counterpart, or the right leadership model to make us see this possibility—but Chuck and I can tell you from experience, the work it takes to bring the teams together is well worth it! We are friends, not foes.

By Sarah E. Sims, CFRE: DRG Consultant and Strategist and Associate Vice President, Donor Engagement at Texas State University and Chuck Arnold: Executive Director, Marketing and Communications at The University of Houston


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