I can’t seem to avoid media stories proclaiming that we’ve crossed the disruption threshold in the state of higher education. Perhaps it is because I have a heightened antenna for the issue or perhaps it is because a seemingly ever increasing amount of social media platforms arm us with mounting opinions, facts and figures on the topic. Northwestern University president, Morty Schapiro, has written more than 100 articles and five books on the economics of higher education with a particular focus on the question of affordability. Morty happens to be a friend and I know he’ll be quick to tell you the supposed downfall of the college system has been bandied about for more than a century. One area that I think the majority of folks will nod their heads to is how increasingly challenging it has become to engage alumni.

It would be hard to refute the communication landscape has changed at unprecedented speed. When you consider the category of social media wasn’t really even a category a decade ago (for context, Facebook was founded in ’04 and Twitter was founded in ’06), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that engaging alumni has caused whiplash for those who make a living in alumni development, or the “advancement” space as it sometimes is called.

It used to be simple. College students were bred with a sense of loyalty to their alma mater from the moment they stepped on campus. If not for those that came before you who now give back, so the story went, you would not be able to afford the collegiate experience. The cost of educating a student was merely subsidized by your tuition. So, when you went on to change the world (and earn a handsome wage), you too would be needed to give back.  While the theory is still in place, the reality, in large part based on the communication landscape has changed. Simply put, the default notion of giving back to “old State U” as a “must” in your giving portfolio is going the route of the CD. With more than one million US non-profits competing for young alums’ dollars and compelling social media social impact platforms like Kickstarter, Crowdrise and dozens of others offering compelling cases for how $50 can truly make a difference, the role of alumni engagement executives has never been tougher.

I’ve spent a portion of the past 18 months learning a lot about the university fundraising (aka “development”) space, based in part on our extensive work with each of the 12 Big Ten universities on behalf of two of our clients – The Big Ten Conference and BTN (Big Ten Network). We recently completed the production of an extensive campaign called BTN Live B1G, which is the network’s inspiring effort to inspire its viewers and fans by highlighting the social impact of the universities and its alumni. We’ve had the privilege of producing hundreds of stories in the past few years that are part brand building, part call-to-action campaigns. It’s led to an intrigue on my part and advice-seeking inquiries from nearly 30 university presidents, foundation presidents and senior level advancement folks at all types of colleges.

In my next post, I share five thought starters to spark dialogue about what can be done to take advantage of the changing landscape and turn the tide in alumni engagement. Check it out here.

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