Having explained a little about the work typically undertaken by the alumni relations and annual/regular giving teams, it’s time to dig into digital – and why it presents such huge opportunities, and challenges.

To do this requires looking at the traditional approaches to communications employed by these teams.

Traditional Approach 1: The “Alumni Magazine”

The alumni magazine produced by most institutions is one of the main ways institutions have of updating alumni on everything they think relevant. It typically includes stories of current students and researchers, as well as of alumni. Any major new initiatives are explored, often by senior members of the institution.

The magazine often contains invitations to events, and sometimes will include a solicitation for money.

Magazines are typically sent to the address on record of the majority of alumni. To be cost-effective, this requires:

  • knowing addresses are up to date
  • being confident these don’t just go straight in the recycling/trash

Magazines are difficult to assess the impact of – as print media delivered physically rarely produces easily trackable return on investment. They are expensive and time-consuming to produce, and content largely is editorial rather than news form, as magazines can only come out at most a few times a year.

Whilst magazines are still the mainstay of many alumni relations programmes, several prominent institutions have started to evaluate them in more depth – and in the case of the University of Oxford, moving them to digital.

Traditional Approach 2: The “Telethon”/”Phonathon”

Telephone calling is often once a year, sometimes more than that, and rarely all-year-round. It is almost always used to fundraise, with specific (often trained students) callers, technology, and agreed scripts. Alumni are filtered and sorted, and called with specific asks to donate.

Today, calling is considered a fairly intrusive manner to reach people, particularly without much warning. However, it is still one of the most successful fundraising methods that institutions employ. Calling programmes are not cheap – as they involve fairly sophisticated analytics, software, and lots of people. Some US institutions are spending $1m+ on their telephone fundraising appeals.

In recent years, the return on investment and long-term future of calling has come under some scrutiny, culminating in Stanford University, with one of the world’s most successful fundraising programmes, dropping it’s alumni telephone fundraising programme entirely.

Telephone fundraising might be expensive, but it does build a personal, emotional connection with someone at the institution, in a way that direct mail struggles to.

Traditional Approach 3: Events

Institutions run a vast range of diverse events – too many to cover in substantial detail. They vary from in-person reunions of specific graduation years to local events for those living in a particular town or country, or those interested in a subject area.

Events are expensive to run, but highly engaging. People often know those around them, or build friendships with them. They also develop shared experiences with those in the room, which provides a great basis for dialogue in the future.

Events aren’t going anywhere, but they suffer from the problem of scale. With 100,000+ alumni, how does an institution plan a calendar of relevant events around the world so as to optimize resources, or long-term return on investment? And moreover, are those even the best measures to optimize?

Traditional Approach 4: Direct Mail Campaigns

In a kind of “telephone meets alumni magazine” combination, many institutions run periodic (a much as 3 times a year, as little as once every 2 years, but often just once a year) direct mail campaigns. These include posting slightly personalized (name, address, sometimes subject based) direct mails to alumni, often with a short piece of content or letter from a senior member of the institution, asking for either a one-off or recurring gift to the institution.

Direct mail is expensive, and has the same implications as the alumni magazine in terms of ensuring addresses are up to date and making sure to target the right people. It is slightly easier to assess “success”, as there is feedback (in the form of money!) when people engage.

Direct mail remains one of the most successful forms of annual/regular giving-based fundraising.

Why Digital is Different

All of the above approaches have something in common: the communication is between the institution and the alumnus/alumna directly. All are a form of direct marketing. At the centre of the picture is the institution, and at the edges are all of the people the institution intends to reach. See the “centralized” image on the left of the below.


At its core, digital – largely due to the use and rapid growth of social media – is fundamentally different. Communication is networked. Whilst there are institutional pages and accounts, the vast majority of communication is peer-to-peer. We form opinions based on trust and trust based on relationships – typically ones carried over from our everyday life, or mutual interests. With this in mind, assuming communication still originates from the institution, it looks a lot more like the “decentralized” model of the above picture.

If content creation itself is also decentralized – with many people in the network creating content for dissemination, then we move to a fully “distributed” mode of communication, as in the network to the right of the above diagram.

This has substantial implications for institutions looking to adopt digital. Whilst “direct marketing” approaches to digital are possible (email is an example, so are paid adverts on social media), the opportunities digital creates to de-centralize communication and as a result grow a much more powerful network are vast.

In my research, even those institutions who have realised this opportunity have struggled to embrace it. I hope to provide some clarity as to why, and what can be done about it.

Having looked briefly at why digital is different, in the next section I explore several ways to understand how to think about it as a medium, that can guide institutions looking to develop a deeper programme.

Read on for Models for Digital.