With a decline in tuition revenue, advancement officers are feeling pressure to drive income from alumni donations to support their institutions. The key to unlocking donor contributions is personalization—segmenting alumni and customizing outreach to most effectively engage past students. However, advancement offices can only personalize their messages and audience segmentation with the information they have available; incomplete or outdated alumni databases can cause alumni departments to miss out on valuable engagement opportunities.
Many higher education institutions struggle to keep a well-documented and current alumni database, with challenges ranging from how to collect the most valuable information on past students to the best software to store this data. However, maintaining an effective alumni database is well within reach for alumni relations departments. Read on to learn how to refresh your alumni database, identify lost alumni, select the best infrastructure for management, and collect the most valuable data to better understand and communicate with your alumni.
Build Your Alumni Database Management Team
The first step to developing an effective alumni database is to determine the stakeholders that will be involved in the process. Establishing an alumni database management team helps to identify the roles different departments and staff members will play in database management and alumni outreach. By forming this team, all relevant stakeholders can determine the roles they will play in collecting and maintaining alumni information and can weigh in together to develop effective governance policies that support access to quality data. Alumni relations, advancement, marketing and communications, and information technology departments may all play a role in maintaining the alumni database.
Once a team has been formed, the members can come together to determine the most vital focus areas to improve the database. The database may contain outdated information or records from lost alumni, is vulnerable to security threats, or does not provide the data points needed to identify potential donors. By focusing on the areas that need the most improvement, the team can assign roles to relevant stakeholders and develop policies for improved maintenance. This team should meet regularly when enacting these changes to determine how the strategy is progressing and to adjust if needed.
Select Your Infrastructure
Alumni database management teams should determine if they would like to improve their existing infrastructure or pursue other platforms for data management. Some advancement offices use spreadsheets to record their alumni data, while others purchase alumni data platforms. The team should determine their budget constraints and priorities when considering new platforms; while spreadsheets are a useful, low-cost or free option, costlier database software may provide more storage or useful features for data filtering. In addition, higher education software providers often offer a cloud-based system, which can allow both alumni and the institution to update their data and can connect disparate databases together for better institutional management.
Institutions should take into account their specific needs when determining their infrastructure. Smaller schools may choose spreadsheets to manage fewer alumni, while bigger schools with multiple branches may require a larger, cloud-based system. The alumni database management team should also consider who and how many staff members will be directly maintaining the database. If the maintenance headcount is low or the database will be run by a department like human resources or marketing that may not have in-depth knowledge of alumni, software with intelligent automation for repetitive tasks and effective filtering tools can alleviate manual burdens. In addition, alumni departments should meet with their information technology departments to discuss potential security breaches to their platforms and determine the actions to take to safeguard their data and respond efficiently in case of a cyberattack.
Determine the Data Attributes to Collect
The database management team should determine the data attributes they need to collect from their alumni to most effectively personalize their outreach. Identifying attributes that inform who alumni are, what they are about, indications as to possible or past giving, and preferred communications channels informs where and how to best engage specific alumni. Schools should assess what data they are able to collect and filter out unnecessary information that will clutter up the database. For example, the courses a past student took while enrolled may not provide much value compared to data on the student’s current job or the advanced education they are pursuing. In general, alumni databases should contain up-to-date contact information and information on post-graduation employment, education, email response rates, past giving, and communication preferences.
Many valuable data sources remain untapped by alumni offices. The United States Postal Service provides an address management database where schools can identify alumni’s current addresses for mailing communications. Professional networking sites like LinkedIn can be invaluable for identifying new demographic data on alumni, including updated job titles and detailed job history information that can provide a better picture of donors’ post-graduate experiences. In addition, monitoring hashtags and keywords alumni use when speaking about the university and tracking the highest performing content from alumni engagement campaigns can add helpful information on what alumni think about the university—and how likely they may be to give.
Engage Alumni to Collect Valuable Data Attributes
In addition to pulling data from online sources, alumni database management teams can also engage alumni directly to collect their information. Website portals that allow alumni to self-report their contact information, giving and communications preferences, and other attributes can be invaluable; there is compelling evidence that these sources are quickly becoming a primary source of up-to-date alumni data. Periodic alumni surveys and campaigns that request alumni information can also provide alumni data; however, it can be difficult to engage alumni so that they contribute their information. To entice alumni, schools can offer benefits or rewards for their participation in the data collection. For example, participants can be entered into a raffle to win gift cards or game tickets for the school’s sports teams.
Schools can effectively target specific alumni by partnering with the campus organizations or programs with which alumni have participated. Clubs, Greek organizations, professional associations, and ambassadors for graduating classes or majors can band with alumni offices to reach out to past participants requesting up-to-date information for further communications. This provides a personal touch when engaging alumni who may pay more attention to a request to connect with a beloved past club than a blanket email sent to all alumni.
Collecting alumni information is only half of the battle—alumni offices must clean and schedule regular maintenance for their databases to keep them usable and up-to-date. Data may get muddied if different departments and organizations within the institution keep separate data on alumni, overlapping or providing conflicting data that threatens an efficient alumni engagement strategy. It is vital to communicate information on the database and procedures for updating it to all relevant departments to ensure that only one database is being deployed and correctly updated. Team members responsible for maintaining accessible data should regularly revisit the data to correct any misspellings or add to incomplete records while deleting duplicate profiles that can skew data analysis.
The alumni database management team should determine how often to schedule maintenance on the database. Email campaigns should trigger an evaluation of the database to monitor bounce backs; bounce backs can identify alumni whose contact information needs to be updated before they become lost to the system. The team can determine how often to launch engagement campaigns or surveys to pull updated alumni information based on the needs of the organization; these can also coincide with periods for general database cleaning and refreshing so the system is always “alive” with current alumni information.