Are Alumni Associations Still Viable?

by Craig Cunningham | June 17, 2019

When I graduated from Baylor a decade ago, I left with a network in my pocket. Friends, professors, and potential employers were now a click away through Facebook, the revolutionary platform that launched during my freshman year. I distinctly remember sitting around Penland with roommates, awestruck over the ease with which we could find out information about other students. By graduation, the platform had matured and expanded. With ten minutes and an internet connection, I could find pretty much anyone. Not just at Baylor, but from any point in my life. I could pinpoint where they lived, what they did for a living, and how I could reach out to them directly. If I needed news about Baylor, I could have Google send stories directly to my email.  

To be perfectly honest, joining an alumni association never crossed my mind. Why would I? What could the alumni association provide that Google and Facebook weren’t already doing for free?

Fast forward ten years, and all of the technology that prevented me from joining the association has accelerated and become even more effective at connecting people around the world. Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram have joined the merry band of immediacy. We’ve almost entered the post-click world. Notifications are delivered to me throughout the day. A search for ‘Baylor’ on Facebook turns up close to a hundred subgroups – Baylor in the 70s, Baylor Young Grads in Austin, Baylor Theatre in NYC, and on and on. In other words, alumni have formed their own associations based on specific interests, each with their own rules, culture, and motivations. And all of those friends I had at Baylor? I know exactly when they have babies or get a new job or eat an interesting meal.

At the Baylor Line Foundation, we have been trying to wrestle with these factors for years. What is an appropriate business model? What is the difference between our online and offline audiences? How can we add real value to membership? What can we do that Baylor grads cannot live without? 

The Baylor Line Foundation is in a particularly unique position, not only because of the complicated history with the university, but because we are one of twenty or so independent alumni associations left in the US. With 5,000 universities, that puts us in very rare company. (Oddly enough, six of those independent associations are in Texas.) Whether independent or not, associations are struggling to dangle enough carrots to be chased. Discounted trips, credit cards, and coupons had their day, but that day has passed. The alumni magazine, once the most thorough and up-to-date news available about the university and her alumni, is often a day late and a dollar short. Well-meaning leaders of associations around the nation set lifetime memberships at $1,000, complicating future changes to business models. 

We aren’t the only alumni association trying to answer these questions.

I spoke to three leaders of alumni associations around the state. Kathryn Greenwade, who is the Vice President of the Association of Former Students at A&M, highlighted their primary challenges: “1. Like all alumni organizations today, we are faced with communicating with alumni from the age of 22 to 100. Communicating in a way that appeals to each of these five distinct generations, while delivering a consistent message, with limited staff keeps us on our toes. 2. There are many more ways to engage with one’s university today than there were when I graduated in 1988. Technology allows our former students to keep up with events on campus in real time which changes what we communicate and the immediacy of our communications. 3. There are also more organizations seeking financial support for Texas A&M which can create confusion among our constituent base. 4. Technology is constantly changing and we have to keep up, but on limited budgets. 5. People gather differently today than they did 30 years ago. They are able to engage with one another virtually and are sometimes not as drawn to events such as the traditional 10, 20, 30, etc., year reunion.”

Curt Langford, the President and CEO of the Texas Tech Alumni Association, referenced the challenge of being a strategic partner with the university: “Our model is independent, but we’re intent not to act like it. In other words, we leverage the benefits of independence for the university’s sake, working collaboratively on campus without creating conflict. Our future success will be our ability to amplify the university’s academic initiatives while also inspiring alumni to help support them.” 

Mike Pede, who heads up the alumni association at the University of Houston and is a thought-leader in regards to alumni associations, told me that they completely removed annual memberships in 2013 and haven’t looked back. Their staff was spending 70% of their time on something that provided 30% of their revenue. He also mentioned the struggle of being “all things to all people.”

We have the exact same issues. 

In my opinion, there are two ways of looking at the long-term viability of alumni organizations. 

One is that alumni associations have taken the same road as Blockbuster and Borders Bookstores. Social networks have made them obsolete, and organizations like the Baylor Line Foundation are dinosaurs. If they are hanging on, it is by the tips of their fingers. 

The second, and more hopeful view, is that this is the time to redefine the role of the alumni association. I personally ascribe to this view. Rather than focusing on the barriers, it is exciting to focus on the opportunities. Everything, from our business model to our print strategy to our social media, must evolve if we want to stay viable. 

But here’s what won’t ever change: We want to help you stay connected to the Baylor Family. The word ‘Family’ is important. Each one of us came to Baylor not because it is the best school in the world, and certainly not because it is affordable, but because we wanted Baylor to be a part of our individual stories. That binds us in a special way. We can help you stay connected to that story. The first way we do that is through authentic relationships. That includes events like the Hall of Fame, where we recognize alumni who may not have made big gifts to the university, but have made incredible contributions to our world. A person just like you is going to receive a Hall of Fame award this year. The second way is through news and stories. As an independent organization, it is our responsibility to deliver stories about Baylor and alumni that aren’t limited by bias, politics, or dogmas. The third way is by creating opportunities for our supporters to give back. An example of this is our scholarship program. 

The honest-to-God-truth is that we don’t have a magic pill for alumni associations. But I do believe that we are asking the right questions, and that our hearts, minds, and efforts are pointed in the right direction. 

I recently attended an event at our home church in Waco, and the newly-hired pastor took the stage to discuss his vision for the coming year. He said something that stuck with me. Without quoting him exactly, he said something along the lines of: “I’m not going to grow this church. You are.”

The Baylor Line Foundation doesn’t belong to our staff or our board of directors. It doesn’t belong to Baylor University. This organization belongs to you, the Baylor Family. This organization has belonged to you for 160 years. We are here to serve your vision for how to make an impact on Baylor and her alumni. Send us stories. Send us pictures. Send us obituaries. Send us your artwork. Connect with us on social media. Offer up alumni-elected regent candidates. Nominate Hall of Fame recipients. Pass along ideas on how to build this community. Tell us what Baylor is doing that you love, and what concerns you. 

Are alumni associations still viable? You tell me.