Report of the Alumni Relations Committee

                  For the Year 2006-2007                     

Presented to the University Senate

May 4, 2007

 

In its Annual Report of 2005-2006, which focused on the intellectual engagement of the alumni with the University, the Alumni Relations Committee noted that more aggressive use of databases and data mining could provide powerful tools for better understanding alumni needs and interests and for improving strategic planning and resource allocation.  In this way, the University is like any other business – understanding the needs and behaviors of the customer makes it more likely that the business will produce products or services that find a market and help it build its brand and a loyal following.  Indeed, the challenge of a university seeking to engage its alumni is even greater than that facing many businesses, given that alumni have not been subject to the same systematic study that consumers have.

 

At the beginning of this academic year, the Committee decided to investigate this issue more deeply, and over the course of the year met with the following:

 

·        Susan Mescher, Associate Dean for Planning and Administration, Columbia College.

·        Alex Whitney, Executive Director, Columbia College Information Technology (CCIT)

·        Kai-Joachim Kamrath, Senior Project Manager for Advance

·        Demetrius Mossaidis, Advance Systems Manager and Associate Project Manager

·        Beverlee J. Cappeto, Director of Information Services, Business School Alumni Relations Office

·        Heather Truscinski, Executive Director of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving, Law School Development and Alumni Relations Office

·        John Herin, Associate Director for Development Services, Law School Development and Alumni Relations Office

 

To summarize these conversations, at the University-wide level, there are three primary data platforms, each with their own function. 

 

·        Sundial is a calendaring system developed by CCIT which is undergoing regular upgrades.  It currently is the designated University Calendar and allows users both the ability to access a list of events and register for them, and provides event sponsors the ability to manage registrants and wait-lists as well as to customize registration pages and reminder/cancellation information.  CCIT is currently developing the e-commerce capability, which will allow end-users to pay a registration fee online.  It is currently being used by 120 units (groups, departments, centers, etc.) within the University.  This is a significant increase from the beginning of the year, but still represents only a fraction of the potential universe.

 

·        Advance is the database employed by the University Development and Alumni Relations Office to track alumni, friends of the University and potential donors, covering demographic data, giving history, prospect management (combing public records and news sources to identify potential donors) and, to a lesser extent, event tracking. 

 

·        Harris Connect is the e-community/social networking platform which allows alumni to interact with each other and update their records and biography. 

 

In the absence of a centralized system until recently, and reflecting the independent-minded history of many of the University’s schools, many of them – the Business and Law Schools being notable examples – have their own methods of tracking and retaining data.  It should be noted, however, that both the Business and Law Schools are, or are in the process of, integrating the data in their databases with the University-wide Advance database.

 

With this background, the Committee makes the following findings and recommendations:

 

The University and its schools should take a more holistic, big-picture view of data management.  The Business School is endeavoring to take a “cradle-to-grave” approach to record keeping, following a prospective student’s request for information to admission, courses and activities, graduation and alumni involvement.  The Law School tracks and retains its students’ interests, activities and specializations and tailors its invitations to alumni events accordingly.  UDAR is considering adopting a scoring system that would measure involvement in alumni leadership.  These are all moves in the right direction, but there is much still to be done.  In many instances, for example, event tracking is done only sporadically and only retained for a short period at the individual unit level, foregoing an opportunity to gain more strategic insight into alumni activity patterns.  In the same way that each book order with Amazon gives that retailer more information about what customers might want to buy in the future, each of the thousands of “touch points” between an individual and the University – applying to a particular program, choosing a course of study, joining an affinity group, or becoming involved in student or alumni leadership, not to mention career history and demographics – is an opportunity for the University to learn more about its current and future alumni and to tailor its programs and interaction accordingly.  Indeed, CCIT is currently developing an ambitious schematic plan that integrates multiple databases and which might well be a model for the rest of the University.  Further, the University is encouraged to look to other sectors outside academia for ideas and inspiration in this regard.

 

A University-wide working group should be established to promote information integration and the exchange of best practices.  The Committee found several textbook examples of siloing.  The Business School, for example, needing a calendaring system and not finding a commercial product that met its requirements, developed its own – unaware that CCIT was at the same time building its own calendaring system for same reason.  The Committee, seeing possible strategic advantages in integrating the Sundial calendaring system with the Advance database, facilitated a meeting among the appropriate management teams.  These and other examples point to the need for regular meetings at a strategic level to exchange information and ideas.  One way to accomplish this would be to expand the Sundial-Advance dialogue to include the appropriate representatives from the various units.  This would also fulfill the need for increased communication to grow adoption.  The biggest challenge the Sundial application faces, for example, is overcoming the inertia and skepticism of the various units it wishes to involve.  The Business School faces a similar communications challenge in getting each of its various centers to fully participate in its database system. 

 

The University should increase staffing of appropriate offices.  Several of the people we spoke with noted that our peer institutions have similar data systems but devote more staffing resources to managing them.  Given the benefits that can accrue to alumni giving alone, a small additional investment in this area may well carry a sizable return.

 

Alumni Relations Officers should be more aggressive in the use of data mining to drive strategic planning. The actual process of data collection absorbs much of the resources currently devoted to data management.  Equal emphasis needs to be placed on using the data in decision making.  Analyzing the zip codes of its Bay Area alumni, for example, prompted the Law School to hold separate events for those living in San Francisco and Palo Alto, increasing total attendance. There are many more such areas to be explored.  How broad or narrow is the actual base of alumni support? How does alumni involvement and age correlate with different patterns of alumni giving?  How can event time, location and content preferences be mapped to target invitations and increase attendance? How can identifying existing clusters of alumni, who work, say, in the same company, strengthen outreach efforts as well as ties between the University and industry?

 

At the same time, the Committee notes two areas of concern.  First, identifying such patterns from ever-larger pools of data will not be trivial and will likely require not only additional staffing resources but additional skill sets in data analysis, programming and algorithm development.  Second, data ownership issues, linked as they are to fundraising, will continue to be a disincentive to collaboration.  These issues will have to be met with a combination of institutional resolve at the senior administration and Trustee level, incentives to collaborate, and policies to address the legitimate concerns of the various players.

 

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

Sen. Bradley W. Bloch, Chair (Alum.)

Sen. Wenndy Carrasco (Stu., SPIA)

Mr. Eric Furda, University Vice President for Alumni Relations

Mr. Jose R. Gonzalez, Associate Director of University Alumni Relations and

     Advisor to the Committee

Prof. Robert McCaughey                                 

Sen. Jonah Rockoff (Non-Ten., Bus.)

Sen. Daniel Savin (Res. Off.)

Mr. Walter Sweet, Alumnus Advisor to the Committee

Sen. Paul Thompson (Alum.)