Engagement: Beyond a Form Email or Letter in the Mail

John Grant-Cropped

By John Grant

I met Oprah this week. Well, not the Oprah, but someone who is pretty much as equally as big of a deal in my world. I had a rare opportunity recently to sit in on a session with someone who I’ll dare say is my hero in the advancement and alumni engagement world. He’s an individual who I find inspiring, has a proven track record, and who makes me want to jump out of my seat and make a difference.

I’m not able to summarize everything that I took away from our time together (you’ll have to pay him for that information!), but one element that is critical to recognize is that our success as fundraisers and alumni relations professionals is based on one fundamental principle: authentic engagement.

Our prospects (often alumni) are busy people. They have multiple competing interests, and every organization they’ve ever interacted with is likely sending them emails or ‘personalized’ letters in the mail seeking a gift of time or money. So how do we stand out?

For those of us who work in post-secondary institutions, our alumni are a particularly unique stakeholder; they’ve invested years on our campuses, forging important relationships and creating memories that will undoubtedly last for a season, a reason, or a lifetime. The bottom line is that they have some form of attachment to some aspect of the organizations we’re working for. The key for us is to figure out the source of that attachment to which we can build upon.

If we begin to reach out to prospects and alumni in an authentic manner what we do is start to think less about what we need (the gift or their time), and think more about what they need (to feel that they’re making a difference or to provide a conduit for that difference to occur). As the Marketing Officer in our office always touts: “We need to go back to the basics of communication and think about what the audience needs.”

So what does authentic engagement look like? Here are a few places to start:

  1. Have a conversation – like, a real one. I recognize this is increasingly challenging as we’re all being stretched thin with more to do with fewer resources. However, think about starting small and even hosting some basic focus groups or one-on-one interviews with prospects or target segments of your alumni audience. A conversation involves dialogue – which means two-way communication. An online survey doesn’t cut it; but one over the phone – or better yet in person – in a somewhat casual tone, could prove to be quite fruitful and yield interesting solutions to issues you may be facing.
  1. Try to help. Find out what interests them or what keeps them up at night. What problems exist in the world that they’re keen to see resolved and what role could you or your organization play in helping to overcome those challenges? Perhaps they can make a gift through your organization to help find a solution to one of their problems, or maybe they have a particular talent or skill they can offer to your students or faculty members. Bottom line: find a number of opportunities that could meet their needs and let them pick the best fit.
  1. Make them know that they make a difference. How many times have you registered for an event and not shown up because something else came up or you changed your plans? Now how many of those event organizers emailed you after the event saying “Wow, we really missed you and hope you can join us next time”? Think about the potential impact that could make on you. If nothing more, it’ll get you to think about them for another brief moment and to maybe reconsider missing a future event. If they made a financial gift or donated their time, how have those made an impact as well?
  1. Be patient. My “Oprah” mentioned that it generally takes about nine meaningful interactions with a major giving prospect – over a 21 month period – before they’ll make a gift to your organization. That sounds like – and is – a long time when you’re trying to accomplish your goals for the year. However, you’ll likely discover some interesting information about them during that time, and even find other opportunities to harness their interest along the way. Again, consider things like initiatives that involve mentoring students (e.g. through a speed-mentoring event, in-class presentation, or as a speaker at an alumni event), sharing stories about their favourite professors, or how your institution made a difference in their lives. All of this is really gold in its own right – and will no doubt help you and your colleagues in multiple capacities.

You’re dying to know who my “Oprah” is, right? Jim Langley is his name and you can learn more about him here.

John Grant has been working with Simon Fraser University for the past decade, nearly half of which has been devoted to Alumni Relations. His primary responsibilities include building strong relationships with campus partners to explore, encourage, and promote opportunities to expand alumni engagement. A large component to this role is to serve as a type of consultant to internal groups to make recommendations that improve overall alumni engagement including communications strategies, program options, and performance tracking systems. He and his wife won the SFU Humanitarian Staff Achievement Award for establishing a financial award for undergraduate student leaders. John holds a BA in Communication and Psychology, a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration, and a Master of Education in Post-Secondary Leadership. 



2 thoughts on “Engagement: Beyond a Form Email or Letter in the Mail”

  1. Well said John. I’d add to your marketing officer’s statement regarding understanding audiences’ needs by saying this is done through listening…really listening. Authentic engagement is the way we build strong, supportive, sustainable communities. This takes time and commitment to build. As you said, we are stretched thin with resources however those relationships built on trust and commitment are rewarding in tangible and sometimes the most interesting non-tangible ways. Glad you were able to meet your Oprah!

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