Alumni-Centricity and Organizational Self-Awareness

Today, more than ever, being alumni-centric is on the minds of most higher ed leaders. Student-centricity, of course, has always been top-of-mind, as it’s the raison d’etre of all learning institutions and profoundly affects their valuable reputation. Alumni-centricity, however, is a more recent concept and may feel a bit orthogonal to the mission of higher ed communities. 

The reality is, non-profit private institutions need to embrace both student-centricity and alumni-centricity if they want to thrive. With accelerating declines in higher ed demand and public outrage over high tuition and student debt, institutional governance necessitates a strong embrace of their multifaceted relationship with alumni, beyond searching each year for the 5-10% who will provide 80-90% of the gifts. The market for philanthropy has just become too competitive for institutions to be complacent with the status quo. The hard truth of the matter: affiliation is no longer enough.



The question of alumni-centricity brings to mind a similar construct in the private sector: customer-centricity.  

When you ask corporate leaders today if “customer-centricity” is a core element of their business strategy, almost all will respond, perhaps with incredulous body language, “Of course we’re customer-centric!” After all, in competitive markets where consumers have choices, how could their business survive without being customer-centric?  

The real picture, however, suggests otherwise. Many (if not most) efforts to be “customer-centric” fall short—leaders are typically fully absorbed by the short term pressures to meet revenue goals or are unwilling to evolve their organizational structure and culture to fulfill a truly customer-centric strategy. Even for those who are genuinely invested in creating a customer-centric business model, disconnected cross-functional activity and a legacy of delusional and biased thinking about the customer can undermine the strategy. Making matters worse, most corporations are simply not self-aware until a crisis hits them over the head and they are forced to change in dire circumstances.



Educational institutions can learn from the successes and failures of the private sector by pursuing their own, unique equivalent to this strategy: Alumni-centricity. The degree to which this approach is incorporated into their institutional strategic plans and effectively pursued across the organization could very well make the difference between financial stagnation or decline and a thriving institution. Just run a regression, using “ranking/reputation” as the dependent variable and endowment or participation rates as independent variables and you’ll see just how much of the variation in ranking/reputation is explained.  

Alumni represent a prolific asset of the university: they can advocate to prospective students, they can accelerate a student’s transition to the job market and, of course, they offer tremendous potential financial support. If your student body mirrors the population of the US (based on 2017 data), 5% of your alumni households have a net worth of at least $2.5 million and 1% have more than $10.5 million.

Alumni-centricity recognizes the enormous strategic importance of sustaining a maximum number of loyal, mutually beneficial relationships. It is based on the premise that major- and mega-donations come to fruition after at least 10-15 years of sustained, modest giving and that it is nearly impossible to predict which individuals will have the capacity and inclination to make them. Alumni-centric institutions organize around and consistently use their granular knowledge of alumni to bring about a sense of belonging, mutual caring and mutual benefit.



If you want to assess your institution’s “alumni-centricity quotient,” you may want to think about the following seven questions:

  1. Do you have sufficient granular knowledge of your alumni to inform the actions you take to foster a sense of belonging, mutual caring and mutual benefit?
  2. Have you taken into consideration the heterogeneity of your alumni mindsets, expectations and current circumstances in your actions? 
  3. When your seniors graduate, do you have a plan to ensure they continue to feel a genuine connection to your institution?
  4. Has everyone that engages with alumni bought into your alumni-centric plan and do they understand their role?  
  5. Have all stakeholders agreed on the long-term ROI of the strategy?
  6. Are you monitoring alumni levels of satisfaction with your institution and, as a result, have you learned how to constantly drive more loyal behavior and sentiments toward your institution?  
  7. Do you know the factors that add and detract from alumni satisfaction with your institution?



Alumni-centricity is a long-term strategy meant to align institutional needs with those of alumni. This strategy is distinct from the customer-centricity employed in the private sector in two ways.  

  • First, it is best to consider alumni as members of a community that share an experience and a common history, not as consumers of services provided by the university (even if some alumni do think this way).  As such, alumni should view the alma mater as a trusted, safe place where they truly belong and which offers a substantive mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Second, alumni-centricity demands a very broad tent. It does not exclude potential segments; rather, it merely recognizes the value of offering some alumni higher-touch treatments without leaving others out in the cold.



Pursuing an alumni-centric strategy will require commitment to a new, shared outlook on the nature of alumni relationships. It will necessitate a greater level of institutional self-awareness. And it will take some patience. But higher ed institutions who adopt an alumni-centric approach will find themselves with a stronger foundation for long-term financial stability and growth.