2024 VAESE Alumni Relations Study- 5 Key Takeaways for Your Organization

2024 VAESE Alumni Relations Study- 5 Key Takeaways for Your Organization

Summary: Using data from the 2024 VAESE Alumni Relations Study, we reveal key takeaways for large, medium-sized and small institutions. We reveal how staffing, budget, and tech shape engagement; offering actionable tips tailored for your alumni relations challenges. View the free webinar to see the results and analysis of this new global study about alumni relations in higher ed. You can also download the 27 page study here.

About a 14 minute read

What’s the state of higher education alumni relations?

We’ve been asking that question since 2015 when we launched the inaugural VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study, the first free, comprehensive comparative study about alumni engagement.

M11387_VAESE-LOGOWe launched that study because we couldn’t find any easily accessible, reasonably-priced research that focused solely on alumni relations and engagement. If there was data to be found, most of that research focused on higher ed advancement, development, and/or fundraising issues.

We all know that good data isn’t cheap. But if you can find any studies offering metrics related to alumni relations, it’s usually at a very high level, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of helpful comparison data. None of the studies I could find addressed the most critical issues that are near and dear to alumni professionals. And if there is any actionable data out there, it’s usually cost prohibitive, especially for smaller alumni operations.

I speak from personal experience. I'm a former alumni director at a large state institution. I know what it means to be cash strapped. Heck, there were times I could barely afford to pay work-study students to stuff my annual fund envelopes, let alone shell-out thousands of dollars for data to help me see how my program compared to my peers. 

After coming to Access, I was asked to help our company learn how to better serve our higher ed. alumni clients. We had so many unanswered questions and there was no available data, so we chose to conduct the research ourselves. (I’ve been involved in many similar types of research efforts, conducting a study about alumni relations was one I was eager to tackle.)

We launched the inaugural VAESE study in November of 2015, not knowing if anyone would really care about our results. To our delight, it was well received by the alumni relations community and we continue to see the study downloaded and referenced in various articles, research, and social media content.

The 2024 Study & Webinar

That brings me to our most recent 2024 study.  You can download the study here.

You can also see the related analysis at a 60 minute webinar viewable here.

As far as the study goes, we’ve had over 400 institutions participate in the study. They hail from four continents and fifteen countries. They represent 47 of the 50 states. Our respondents consist of 74% senior management, including titles like “Executive Director,” “Vice President,” and “Associate VP.”  We're confident in the rigor of this study, and feel it adds to the body of research that can help all alumni relations professionals do their jobs better.

two American professionals on screen hosting a webinar, showing a slide with colorful graphs, and some indication that many people are participating i-1The webinar reviews the most important findings from the study, focusing on issues related to staffing, budget allocations, technological requirements, and strategic leadership. The study has 19 unique datasets that include a wide array of topics relevant to alumni professionals.   

Whether your from a large institution utilizing its ample resources to nurture a dynamic alumni network, a medium-sized organization balancing expansion and personalized interaction, or a small college enhancing its influence with a lean staff, the findings shed light on both common obstacles and unique hurdles encountered by each.

For this article  here, I’ve used 4 of the 19 datasets  to arrive at five key takeaways for  these unique alumni audiences:

Hopefully, you be able to find some relevant information here that’s helpful.

While it might seem like there are some similarities in these key takeaways, it's important to note that they are not one-size-fits-all. Be sure to focus on the subtle differences for each key takeaway, as each is tailored specifically for each group. Even though there is a common theme, the recommendations can vary significantly.

Five key takeaways for an alumni organization at a large NCAA Division 1 Conference School with ten or more FTEs:

  • Double Down on Communicating and Delivering Value:

Our data indicates that the lack of compelling, relevant value for alumni is a primary roadblock to engagement across all types of institutions. However, among larger schools, most have done good job of delivering on their value proposition. Because of these institution's have greater visibility and brand recognition, it's absolutely crucial to continue your efforts to communicate and deliver unique, high-value benefits/incentives for your alumni. That means continuing to invest in value-added benefits like exclusive events, networking opportunities with industry leaders, compelling retail discounts, and unique athletic offerings that leverage your school's prominent status. Your commitment to maintaining that momentum of offering relevant, value-added benefits will remain a critical part of how well you can attract and engage your alumni over time.

  • Strategic Use of Resources:

an intimate office setting around a boardroom table where five professional women are wearing business casual clothing, each with a laptop in front of-1-1While staffing levels appear to have increased since 2016, there remains a concern among your staff about not having a sufficient workforce to complete necessary tasks. They are also deeply concerned about the ongoing external threats that could force budget cuts. For a large, Power 5 school, it's vital to ensure that resource allocation is efficient and that increases in budget and staffing are strategically aligned with clear goals that maximize alumni engagement and satisfaction. This might involve investing in technology that automates routine tasks or enhances communication strategies to more effectively reach and engage a diverse alumni base.

  • Addressing Technological Demands and Skills Gap:

Respondents indicate concern about the increasing demands of technology and a potential skills gap among staff. This would indicate a clear opportunity for a large institution to lead in digital transformation within alumni relations. Implementing cutting-edge CRM systems, utilizing data analytics to tailor engagement strategies, and providing comprehensive training to staff can all help bridge any existing technological gaps. While the use of AI is becoming more common among alumni relations professionals, our study indicates that many alumni professionals dislike the increased focus on technology, but especially AI. This could be mitigated by conducting specific training that could help show how to increase productivity with AI, and demystify this and other less-familiar technologies.

  • Navigating Organizational Dynamics:

Nagging concerns about strategic leadership and potential reorganization highlight the importance of stable and visionary leadership in alumni relations. For large alumni operations, where the stakes and visibility are higher, maintaining organizational stability and clarity in leadership roles can help mitigate your staff's concerns and foster a more focused and proactive alumni relations strategy.

  • Enhancing Communication and Addressing Perceptions:

Despite growing budgets, there still appears to be a perceptual disconnect among staff regarding the financial stability of your organization. This suggests a need for a more concerted effort to communicate how your resources are being used and the impact they are having. Regular updates, transparent communication from leadership about changes and developments, and active solicitation of staff and alumni feedback can help align perceptions with reality and increase satisfaction with the institution's direction and performance.

Additional Considerations

Engagement Metrics and Accountability: For nearly all large schools, setting clear metrics for engagement and regularly reviewing these metrics can help ensure that strategies are effective and that resources are being used to their fullest potential. Accountability frameworks can also help in aligning staff performance with strategic objectives.

Alumni Needs Assessment: Conducting regular assessments of alumni needs and satisfaction can help tailor engagement strategies more effectively. For a large school, where alumni might have unique needs or higher expectations, understanding these needs through direct feedback and engagement metrics is crucial.

Building a Community Feel: Despite the large size of the institution, creating a sense of community and personal connection can significantly enhance alumni loyalty and engagement. Special interest groups, regional clubs, and targeted communications can help personalize the alumni experience and strengthen their connection to the institution.


Five key takeaways for an alumni relations executive in a medium-sized higher education institution with 4-9 FTEs.

  • Staffing and Budget Constraints are Critical Concerns:

There is a clear indication from the data that both staffing levels and budget constraints are significant concerns. Despite some increases in full-time equivalents (FTEs) dedicated to alumni relations, the perceived lack of adequate staffing and fears of budget cuts are prevalent among respondents. It suggests that even incremental increases in staffing may not be sufficiently addressing the workload or the strategic needs, possibly due to either insufficient budget allocations or inefficiencies in how resources are utilized. This concern is especially prevalent among institutions where advancement/development operations and alumni operations are fully integrated, and is especially prevalent where fundraising and engagement responsibilities are not clearly articulated and delineated.  Clear and open communication from leadership regarding budgets and infrastructure investments, coupled with actively seeking input from both staff and alumni, can bridge the gap between perceptions and reality, ultimately boosting satisfaction with the institution's progress and overall performance.

  • Engagement and Value Proposition Challenges:

Alumni engagement remains a persistent challenge, primarily driven by a perceived lack of compelling, relevant value for alumni. This is a growing concern, particularly as competition for alumni attention intensifies. Many institutions can benefit from launching an new engagement strategy focused on promoting your most compelling, memorable, and unique alumni benefit. If you don't have any benefits that are compelling to a broad audience, consider something with universal appeal and can impact your alumni with everyday value. If you want alumni to engage, give them an incentive to engage. Gone are the days when you keep drawing from the well without replenishing it.   

  • Technological Adaptation and Skills Gap:

The data points to a notable concern regarding the increasing demands of technology and the lack of technological skills among staff. This emphasizes the need for ongoing training and investment in technology to not only improve engagement strategies but also to streamline operations and reduce the workload on existing staff. Among medium-sized alumni offices, we discovered that many staff members report an outspoken resistance towards technology, particularly AI. While AI can play a crucial role in automating mundane and repetitive tasks within your office, acquiring these necessary skills will require a dedicated and focused effort on the part of senior management.

  • Strategic Leadership and Organizational Stability:

Concerns about the lack of strategic leadership and potential organizational restructurings suggest issues with direction and stability within alumni relations departments. Enhancing leadership capabilities and providing clear, consistent strategic guidance could help alleviate some of the operational uncertainties and improve team morale and effectiveness.

  • Perceptions vs. Reality in Resource Changes:

There appears to be a disconnect between the actual changes in resources (both human and financial) and the perceptions of these changes among alumni relations professionals. Despite reporting increases in both staffing and budget in some areas, many professionals feel that resources are either stagnant or insufficient. This could be indicative of communication gaps within the institution or unrealistic expectations about the pace and impact of resource enhancements.

Additional Considerations

Feedback and Data Utilization: Regularly collecting and analyzing feedback from both alumni and staff can help identify specific areas of concern and opportunities for improvement. This should inform strategy adjustments and resource allocation to better meet the needs of alumni and the goals of the institution.

Employee Support and Development: Addressing the professional concerns of alumni relations staff, such as fears related to job security, workload, and skill adequacy, is essential for maintaining a motivated and effective team. Investing in professional development and support mechanisms can help mitigate these concerns.

Five key takeaways for an alumni executive at a small institution with three or fewer FTEs dedicated to alumni relations.

  • Critical Impact of Staffing Constraints:

The data reveals a significant concern about not having enough staff to complete necessary tasks, which is the highest-rated concern in the stress index dataset as well. For small institutions, where staffing is inherently limited, this underscores the importance of efficient task management, possibly through prioritization, automation, and outsourcing non-core activities. Leveraging volunteers from the alumni network can also help extend the reach and capabilities of the small staff team.

  • Enhanced Focus on Value Creation in Alumni Engagement:

Alumni engagement is a common challenge, with a lack of compelling, relevant value for alumni is frequently mentioned as a major roadblock. Small institutions must focus on creating highly targeted, personalized engagement strategies that leverage their unique strengths, such as a close-knit community feel, personalized communication, and niche networking opportunities that may not be feasible at larger institutions. It's all about everyday, relevant value in order to help your organization stay top-of-mind with your alumni. 

  • Budget Sensitivities and Strategic Resource Allocation:

Concerns about budget cuts are prominent, and for smaller institutions with potentially more limited funding, ensuring financial sustainability is crucial. This means advocating for alumni relations as a vital part of the institution’s advancement activities, demonstrating ROI through engagement metrics, and exploring diverse funding streams, including partnerships and grant opportunities.

  • Adapting to Technological Advances with Limited Resources:

Respondents voiced concerns about the increasing demands of technology, indicating that small institutions must be strategic in their technology investments. This could involve adopting cost-effective, scalable solutions that offer significant efficiencies or improved engagement capabilities. Training for existing staff in key technological tools that enhance productivity is also crucial.

  • Navigating Leadership and Strategic Planning Challenges:

The dataset indicates concerns about strategic leadership and potential organizational changes. For a small team, clear, consistent, and visionary leadership is even more critical to maintain focus and drive impact. Small institutions benefit from a more agile decision-making process, which should be leveraged to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and alumni/ae needs.

Additional Considerations

Leveraging Strong Personal Connections: Small institutions often have the advantage of stronger personal connections with their alumni. These relationships should be nurtured to enhance engagement, encourage philanthropic support, and leverage alumni as ambassadors and volunteers.

Effective Communication and Feedback Loops: Given the perception gaps highlighted by the datasets, small institutions should prioritize effective communication both internally and with their alumni. Priorities should include regular updates, transparent communication about challenges and achievements, and active solicitation of feedback that can help align perceptions and enhance community cohesion.

Professional Development and Staff Support: With limited staff, ensuring each team member is at their most effective is crucial. Investing in professional development not only improves individual capabilities but also boosts morale and job satisfaction, which is particularly important in small teams.

I hope these takeaways offer some new insights. Clearly, there's far more that can be gleaned from this data that can't be presented in a single article. Let me know if you have any questions. I'd love to get your input.

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2024 VAESE Alumni Relations Study- 5 Key Takeaways for Your Organization

Written by: Gary Toyn

For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.

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