Using Data to Develop Your Alumni Engagement Program: Lessons from UCLA

April 2, 2019 Camden Morse and Katrina Ward

Everyone is talking about alumni engagement.  For many institutions, the topic raises more questions than answers. How do you engage with former students beyond asking them for money? What kinds of data should be tracked from these interactions? What does success look like? At UCLA, we’ve been mulling over these questions for a while. We’re hoping that by sharing our story with you, you’ll be able to better position your own alumni engagement efforts for success.

Why is alumni engagement important?

Alumni engagement is particularly important right now as advancement offices accommodate the effects student debt has on alumni philanthropic capacity. Our alumni engagement effort came about because we were looking for ways to remain relevant in former students’ lives as they pay off their student debt and begin to reap the benefits of the education they received.

How do you increase alumni engagement without significant investment?

When we first thought about alumni engagement, all we could think about was the cost. Then we started wondering if engagement had to be expensive to be effective. Could we build engagement through technology without using the resources required for in-person events or phone calls? Above it all, we wanted the experience to be natural—not just UCLA inserting itself into people’s lives. We partnered with our alumni affairs team to narrow in on areas where we could add value to our grads’ lives. We wanted to know:

  • How could we engage with alumni around their careers and industries?
  • Could we be relevant to alumni beyond sports and related social activities?

Defining alumni engagement.

As we worked through how we could add value to our alumni’s lives, we realized we needed a way to define and measure alumni engagement. About the same time, CASE released an alumni engagement whitepaper which identified four primary areas to measure alumni engagement:

  • Volunteering: being a career mentor or serving on a board
  • Experiential: events alumni attend that deepen their commitment to the school
  • Philanthropic: donating to annual or major giving initiatives
  • Communication: participation on social media, writing class notes, etc.

These four themes have helped us engineer our engagement program to be interactive and serve our alumni.

Starting to measure engagement.

Four years ago, before the CASE publication, we started an experiment. We wanted to know not only how many people came to events, but who they were and what their connection to the university was. At that time, we were using shadow databases, or informal notes to track who was engaged. It was really challenging. Without a tool of record, it was next to impossible to aggregate all our information, measure our impact, and share success with the board or outside stakeholders. When UCLA adopted Blackbaud CRM, we wanted to take full advantage of our access to data collection, reporting capabilities and having a centralized management system to support these initiatives.

Creating buy-in for more formal alumni engagement measurement.

Collecting the data we need to make informed decisions requires buy-in from everyone on our team. We wanted all staff from events, alumni affairs, annual giving, and even more senior positions to invest in this idea, so we spent a lot of time talking and training.

We also wanted to include our alumni volunteers who lead activities in regions across the world. These folks run events and activities by affinity and by industry and are great partners for collecting information. We made sure that volunteers, students, and staff learned everything from how to great alumni and collect their information at an event to how to code it to be sure it works with our system.

As part of the effort, we dedicated two staff members specifically to this project to support data collection and hygiene. We also have a business analyst devoted to alumni affairs to help shut down shadow databases. Teams from Gift Services to Development to IT have had to work together to get data into the system and develop ways to get it back out.

Learning from what we collect.

We want to make sure that people understand as much as they can about the work they’re doing. We want them not only to have access to data, but to use it for its insight. Here are two ways we’ve used data to make better two-way engagement programs for our alums:

  • Example 1: Virtual Alumni Day

Our virtual alumni day was designed to delight and engage our alumni, without the big price tag associated with an event. It was also an opportunity to get to know the personal interests and affiliations of a large group of alumni. We offered 36 different activities, everything from quizzes, to a juke box, to Q&As with professors and basketball players. Alumni responded and if they wanted to tell us a bit more about themselves, we could point them towards peers or activities of special interest. Alumni could participate without signing in, but for those who opted in voluntarily, we have a new collection of highly personalized data to work with.

Virtual alumni day was fun and successful, but when we analyzed who attended we realized our programming disproportionally attracted younger alumni. We were lacking programming for older alumni. Thus, our Second Act series was born.

  • Example 2: Second Act

Second Act is a series with both in-person and virtual events on topics that are of most interest to people ages 50 and over. We’ve had discussions on how to care for aging parents, or how to get ready to be an empty nester. Creating this programming has boosted our engagement with older audiences but has also emphasized holes in our data.  We recognized that our job and employment data in our system is not as accurate and not as enhanced as we’d like it to be. We’ve received a grant to help us tackle this short coming and will be gathering up-to-date information on alumni careers and employers.

Our Takeaway

Enhancing our alumni engagement program has been a long-term project involving stakeholders from many different areas in the university. Our success accelerated with the adoption of the right technology solution, but it took extensive training and buy-in to collect the data we needed and then develop the reporting we use to influence our decisions. If you’re improving your alumni engagement program, start small. At times we’ve found we’ve been collecting too much data, or not focusing on what was truly useful. Decide what information you need to make decisions and focus there. Don’t be afraid to reassess often.  We look forward to learning from your results!

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