Article written by: Ron Cohen
The college president arrives at an alumni reception, accompanied by colleagues from campus. The president is greeted warmly by guests, but one of his colleagues, a senior faculty member named Robin, is welcomed with real affection, receiving a big hug from at least half the people in the room.
“They’ll put up with me”, the president quips to his assistant, “but they will love Robin forever…”
Virtually all of us have the equivalents of Robin. Within and among our faculty and staff, there are so many people who cultivate and nurture relationships with generations of students. After all, when you see someone regularly and are in dialogue with him or her, it stands to reason that you’ll come to know that person fairly well. When those encounters happen over a 4-year period, well, there’s a lot of trust, support and love that accrues.to the building of lasting bonds.
So…what do most advancement operations do with these treasured relationships? Typically not very much, which is unfortunate and increasingly, counterproductive. Here’s why:
- For students, those relationships define the college. It’s not only those relationships – there are also classmates and teammates and all the bonds students form with one another. But when alumni think back about “the college”, it’s the professor, or the coach, or the conductor, or the housekeeper who is almost always top of mind.
- Campus relationships become life relationships. Technology makes it easy – campus colleagues are in contact with former students all the time. Advancement staff cannot compete for those relationships, and yet we often try. It’s not smart.
- If advancement is focused mainly on fundraising, campus colleagues protect their relationships. A faculty colleague of mine heard recently from a former student who was excited to shared news of a big promotion. “I can’t tell you who he is,” my colleague said, “because he asked me not to. He doesn’t want the college to come after him for a gift.
- Why does the alumnus draw that conclusion? I asked my colleague about how and when she hears from her own undergraduate alma mater. “When they’re calling for money!” she exclaimed. That widespread feeling has put us in a deficit situation. It lives in the minds of so many college graduates, including our colleagues, who use it as a shield against us.
We need to reverse course and acknowledge that 1) skepticism about advancement exists on our campuses; 2) it’s our job to convince colleagues that we’re not solely interested in the wallets of their former students; and 3) we have to prove we mean it, which will take time.
This isn’t easy work. But if we are intentional about embracing alumni for all the value they represent, the opportunities open will up for us to connect well with graduates through the people they know and respect – our colleagues – and not in spite of them.