Views and Opinions

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Photo by Steven McQuaid, CFB Kingston Imaging

Mackenzie building.

The Future of Alumni Organizations1

by Michael Rostek

Without a destination, any road will get you there.

Lewis Carroll

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Introduction

The future cannot be predicted with any useful degree of accuracy.  Indeed, uncertainty is a predominant characteristic of the 21st Century global environment and organizations around the world are struggling to understand and define how their policies fit within this paradigm. In this age of complexity, many organizations often get caught in the trap of attempting to diminish uncertainty, rather than learning how to function with it. As noted historian Colin Grey points out:

The challenge is to cope with uncertainty, not try and diminish it. That cannot be achieved readily. Such ill-fated attempts will place us on the road to ruin through the creation of unsound expectations.2

If the future cannot be predicted and uncertainty rules, how do organizations prepare for it?  A great amount of information exists that can yield guidance for understanding the future; however, making sense of that information is difficult. Few, if any, foresaw the emergence of the dramatic Arab Spring in 2011, or the current financial crisis gripping the European Union.  While it would be wrong to proclaim that the future will resemble the present, it is equally incorrect to assert that the future will bear few hallmarks of the present as we know it. As such, a balanced yet proactive and rigorous method of future analysis is required to stave off reactionary planning which can be costly for organizations across all sectors - private, public, and non-profit - around the world.  Alumni organizations, such as the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada, are by no means immune to the effects of this environment, and it is argued they  must proactively engage in future analysis in order to remain relevant to their membership.

Future of Non-Profits

Broadly speaking, most alumni organizations are non-profit organizations, and research reveals that non-profit organizations should be particularly concerned in this uncertain environment. The current financial crisis has forced many donors to scale back donations entirely, while others look for greater value for each dollar donated. This climate of seeking greater relevance to donors should not be scorned, but embraced. Indeed, this presents an opportunity to retrench and challenge conventional thinking about the future of the non-profit sector. Yet, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, critics contend that very little has been done collectively to look at the future of the ‘third’ sector proclaiming that “… they have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, avoiding some of the tough analyses and choices they invariably will have to make to keep the sector healthy and worthy of the public trust.”3  Of particular note is that little attention is being paid to governance, excessive compensation to officers and executives, ‘sweetheart deals’ that provide financial benefits to non-profit officials, and conflict of interest issues. While there is indeed hesitation to research what are considered ‘risky’ issues for the ‘third' sector, it can be argued that challenging the status quo and taking on the more difficult  issues would, most assuredly, provide greater insight into the steps needed to ensure a more prosperous and stable future. Indeed, challenging the status quo could well increase prospects for innovation and transformation within non-profits, and, by extension, alumni organizations.

Embracing Change

Much of the global uncertainty experienced today derives from three factors - economic recession, demographic shifts, and technology. In fact, these factors also drive change for membership in organizations.4

The exponential growth of science and technology, in particular, internet technologies, is connecting people, rather than simply information, at an increasing rate. And the convergence of media and technology is fueling social networks with global reach, where the focus is on everything from benign collective interests to anti-government activism.5 Leveraging and understanding these new technologies is hardly a new requirement for alumni organizations, and yet, inaction can be perilous. According to one source: 

Now, college grads may use social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to connect with each other –without being part of fee based alumni organizations. Connecting directly to each other using a few mouse clicks, they can fuse lifelong bonds, help each other personally and professionally in near real time.6

A steady decline in fertility rate, a decrease in the death rate, and an increase in life expectancy meanwhile is resulting in the overall aging of Canada’s population.7 The social and economic implications of this shift are far reaching - affecting both the ability to recruit members for our armed forces, and, by extension, The Royal Military College of Canada. And while Canada’s world ranking in the current economic recession has improved relative to other states, it has still deteriorated. This fallout extends well beyond corporate board rooms, reaching deep into the pockets of everyday consumers - and thus potential donors or fee paying members of alumni organizations. 

Book Cover

Photo by Brad Lowe, CFB Kingston Imaging

Mackenzie building at night with cadets.

Alumni Organizations

The future growth, quite possibly, the very survival of alumni organizations demands that a rigorous and methodological approach to forward planning be undertaken to mitigate the worst effects of such an environment. A logical first step is to understand future trends in alumni organizations.To this end, Professor Susan Clouse Dolbert has identified governance as one of several key framing issues.8 She argues that governance models are moving away from an “independent” model towards a more “interdependent” model. Under this model, alumni organizations are partially funded by their universities, although a majority of their funding derives from dues, affinity programs, and other areas, such merchandise sales. Here, the alumni director reports to both the university and the volunteer board of directors. While some would argue that this apparent diarchy would be problematic, it could also be argued that this model brings the alumni organization - a vital constituency that provides a credible voice and contributes time, talent, and treasure to the university - closer to the institution, and not at arm’s length as with the “independent” model. As technology, demographics, and economic recession interact in a more complex and uncertain world, universities may very well wish to consider an interdependent model to further reinforce their institution’s viability, credibility, and branding.

The Napa Group9 has noted through their research that declining resources are forcing alumni organizations to think differently about how they engage alumni.10 Alumni organizations are using ‘high touch’ methods in dense market areas and employing ‘high tech’ methods in sparse markets.11 In addition, both alumni and fundraising components are coordinating and focussing their activities and resources for maximum impact. Use of social media is indeed a significant part of an effective engagement strategy. Yet, “… social media requires staff and time – and clarity around the right marketing mix for the alumni audience. Related Internet-facilitated technologies include blogs, podcasts, video, mobile communications/text messaging and alerts, interactive website features, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, and YouTube.”12 While much of this is not new to alumni organizations, moving forward within the new operating environment described above will require a careful balance between ‘high touch’ and ‘high tech’ applications.

Electronic communication is connecting alumni in ways never experienced before, and this will continue to increase. Indeed, as noted by Andrew Shailin, “… alumni are organizing without alumni organizations."13 Alumni organizations must leverage this trend to improve their information, as well as provide their alumni with better services especially for the X, Y, and Millennium generations. Research has suggested that new services for alumni organizations might include facilitating alumni with transitions in life (i.e. retirement planning, and so on), rather than describing new ways to give back to one’s alma mater.14 Technology facilitates early engagement of young alumni, and studies have shown that this leads to consistent and lifelong philanthropy.15 However, electronic engagement is not considered a panacea, and it is fully expected that print documentation, such as alumni magazines, will remain an important component part of engagement, at least for another generation.16 Additionally, alumni organizations must continue to find ways to increase personal interaction – a staple for alumni associations that will not disappear. One notable trend in this area sees extending the engagement of the alumni organization through increased volunteer leadership and training. Indeed, scanning Canadian alumni organizations reveals the emergence of volunteer workshops designed to attract volunteer alumni and provide them with the necessary tools and methods to assist in the fulfillment their organization’s mandate. Whatever the engagement strategy, it must contain components comprised of electronic and print media, as well as the staple of alumni engagement, face-to-face interaction. 

Book Cover

Photo by Brad Lowe, CFB Kingston Imaging

RMC graduates being silly under the arch.

Conclusion

We continue to live in times marked by uncertainty and complexity. No organization, whether private, public, or non-profit, is immune from the effects which attend the complex interaction of demographics, technology, and economics. The implications for alumni organizations must be researched, understood, and acted upon if alumni organisations are to sustain their operations into the future. The RMC Club of Canada, an alumni organization representing a national institution with a proud tradition of learning, sacrifice, and leadership, is not immune to the effects of this environment. From improved governance models and multi-layer engagement strategies, to widespread use of print and electronic media, alumni organization employees and volunteers are at the forefront of this change.

Along with an understanding of the trends noted above, an important step toward becoming more relevant to membership is research and engagement of current, potential, and lost alumni to determine their view of what their alumni organization should be in this complex and uncertain world. For example, the RMC Club has embarked upon a carefully structured and managed strategic review to study best practices in military and non-military alumni organizations, and to report on the Club’s relevance, membership recruitment, services to members, and alumni engagement. This first step, as with any alumni organization, will indeed help define the ‘destination’ and the ‘path’ Lewis Carroll spoke of so many years ago; a path the RMC Club is following to sustain and improve upon its principle mandate - connecting its alumni across the generations with one of Canada’s premiere learning and leadership institutions.

Colonel (ret’d) Michael A. Rostek, CD, PhD, is currently the Executive Director of the RMC Club of Canada.

Book Cover

Photo by Brad Lowe, CFB Kingston Imaging

RMC Women’s Fencing Team.

Notes

  1. The author would like to thank Peter Gizewski, Strategic Analyst, Defence Research and Development Canada-Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, and Mr. Bruce McAlpine of Fulcrum Search Science Inc. for thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent the official view of the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada.

  2. Colin Grey, “The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War,” in Parameters, Winter 2008-2009, p. 15.

  3. Pablo Eisenberg, “Forum - Looking Ahead: What is the Future for the Non-profit World,” in International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, Volume 8, Issue 1, November 2005 available at < http://www.icnl.org/research/journal/vol8iss1/art_4.htm>.

  4. Sarah Sladek, The End of Membership As We Know It: Building the Fortune Flipping , Must-Have Association of the Next Century, (Washington: The Centre for Association Leadership, 2011), Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Membership-Know-Fortune-Flipping/dp/0880343435 >, 1 April 2012.

  5. Regan Reshke, “Science and Technology,” in Toward Army 2040: Exploring Key Dimensions of the Global Environment, Claxton Paper 14 (Kingston: School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, 2011), p. 21.

  6. Jeremiah Owyang, “Matrix: Impacts to Alumni Organizations in a World of Social Networks,” accessed 27 December 2011 at < http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/>.

  7. Statistics Canada, “Demographic Change,” accessed 29 December 2011 at <http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-229-x/2009001/demo/int1-eng.htm>.

  8. Susan Clouse Dolbert, Ph.D, “Future Trends in Alumni Relations,” Paper presented at the 16th Annual International Education Conference, Hobart September-October 2002, accessed 29 December 2011,  at http://www.aiec.idp.com/pdf/ClouseDolbert_p.pdf, pp. 1-2.

  9. The Napa Group founded, in 1985, provides strategic planning, leadership development, organizational design, and executive team coaching for universities, advancement offices, alumni associations, foundations, and venture-funded start-ups. Their webpage can be viewed at <http://www.napagroup.com/about.html>. 

  10. The Napa Group, “Trends and Best Practices in Alumni Associations,”accessed 15 January 2011 at <http://www.napagroup.com/pdf/Trends_Best_Practices_Alumni_Associations.pdf>, p. 2.

  11. Ibid, p. 1.

  12. The Napa Group, “Best Practices & Trends in Alumni Communications,” accessed 15 January 2011 at < http://www.napagroup.com/pdf/Trends_Best_Practices_Alumni_Communications.pdf>, p. 2.

  13. Andrew Shailin, “Will the Internet Obsolete Alumni Associations?”, accessed 1 April 2012 at < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-shaindlin/alumni-associations-facebook_b_1375765.html> .

  14. Don Philabaum, “Career Centered College Culture and Curriculum,” accessed 1 April 2012 at < http://www.talentmarks.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=vyEBID4NH0Y%3D&tabid=615>, p. 45. 

  15. The Napa Group,  “Trends and Best Practices in Alumni Associations,”accessed 15 January 2011 at <http://www.napagroup.com/pdf/Trends_Best_Practices_Alumni_Associations.pdf>, p. 1.

  16. Susan Clouse Dolbert, Ph.D, “Future Trends in Alumni Relations.” Paper presented at the 16th Annual International Education Conference, Hobart September-October 2002, accessed 15 January 2011,  at http://www.aiec.idp.com/pdf/ClouseDolbert_p.pdf>, p. 9.