It’s been a challenging year in higher education, which long has been recognized as one of the United States’ greatest assets. Yet as thousands of graduates prepare to receive their diplomas, focus on educational “value” has been diluted by political and economic turmoil about access, affordability and career relevance.
If any audience can affirm higher education’s value, it’s the alumni of colleges and universities. And in today’s post-recession economy, college graduates are the only group that has more people employed — and in higher-paying categories — than anyone else, according to the latest numbers from the New York Times. Recognizing their advantage, increasingly alumni are becoming a more activist chorus because of the professional, economic and social value they’ve experienced as a result of their degrees.
I talked about this strengthening “alumni advocacy” movement in “A Little Help from Their Friends” in the April 2013 issue of CASE Currents, the monthly journal of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, I’ve summarized my thoughts and key points in the article here since the magazine is typically accessible through membership in CASE. In working with The Napa Group to facilitate university and alumni association strategic plans, I’ve heard alumni leaders become energetic ambassadors for the power of an education and the value of their degrees. In fact, the new strategic plan for the University of Tennessee System recognizes the important role of alumni advocacy in advancing the university and its contributions to the well-being of people in the state.
Certainly this requires a more sophisticated approach to alumni relations than the traditional network of local clubs, organized around social events, to keep graduates connected to the university and to each other. In fact, “alumni are becoming part of the the university’s core strategy,” I emphasized to Currents writer Kristin Simonetti. Just how far they have come is described in these whitepapers on alumni relations, alumni communications and alumni advocacy and alumni advocacy best practices describe.
As the university’s largest constituency, alumni have great leverage and most recently, in places like California, have been urging state legislatures to reinvest in public higher education after several years of drastic budget reductions. Re-imagining a more comprehensive role for alumni relations for the 21st century is also part of the important work of developing alumni association strategic plans.
As the Currents article shows, you’ll see both “grasstops” and “grassroots” advocacy efforts. “Grasstops” approaches engage smaller groups of highly influential alumni, while “grassroots” advocacy turns out armies of alumni for particular initiatives. Ohio State’s Alumni Association is one of the most organized models of grasstops alumni – 1,000 carefully selected advocates. They helped generate support for public construction regulations that changed how projects are designed and managed – allowing OSU to save more than $44 million by operating as its own contractor in a university hospital expansion project.
Even private universities are getting into the game through government relations staff and alumni who advocate for research grants, laws that facilitate new building projects and federal and state funding for student loans and grants. Not unlike a political campaign, alumni relations is fundamentally about making connections – “who do you know?” – with impact. Universities understand the benefits of this lifelong relationship – and increasingly so do alumni.
Even though they hire pros to write their prose, clients are often skeptical that their voice will be faithfully captured. They’re taking a risk that they won’t be represented correctly, will unwittingly look foolish or will fail to achieve the impact intended. All that said, they know they need a writer or they wouldn’t have delegated the job of crafting their own material in the first place.
A sure sign of failure is the client’s comment: “that doesn’t sound like me.” Your well-crafted memo, speech, whitepaper or article can demonstrate that you’ve researched tenaciously, created momentum with compelling arguments, assembled the material logically and even caused a tear or a smile that showcases your client’s personality. But the final product isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t genuinely sound like your client.
Each time I start a new assignment, I repeat this mantra – “write with your ears.” How does that work exactly? It’s fundamentally about listening.
1. Read what your client has written. You’ll see how he or she puts sentences and thoughts together and what words and expressions they genuinely care about.
2. Interview your client – not only to get information but to experience how he or she talks. Short sentences, long jargony statements – and all measure of verbal habits in between.
3. Study the cadence of sentences when your client talks informally. Talking is typically quite different from how someone writes – it’s more spontaneous and natural, and less polished.
4. Play the voice of your client speaking in the back of your mind as you are writing the material. This is just as important for written materials as for those to be delivered verbally.
5. Finally, once you’ve presented your client a draft, let the wordsmithing and rewriting happen. You should, of course, correct bad grammar or syntax, and you might want to offer suggestions for greater impact or clarity. But it’s your client’s material, not yours – and it has to feel authentic.
In the fine-tuning, a few of the words or sentences you were most proud of might disappear, but you are already ahead because you have contributed your talents to influence a better result. How you handle this final back and forth can move the project from a one-time job to a longer-term relationship built on mutual respect and trust. When your client “sees” you with those eyes, then you are on your way to a longer-term relationship.
Didn’t I say that writing for others uses all the senses? Just listen.
In today’s charged higher education environment, the successful communications offices have transitioned from the “PR” and media relations focus of the past to a strategic partnership with presidents, senior leadership and governing boards. Traditionally regarded as news bureaus and information processors, communications professionals are being asked to take on a leadership role in institutional change management — not only communicating leadership’s vision but engaging the broader university community for buy-in and support.
These outcomes may intuitively seem to be the byproduct of smart communications, but how to deliver these results effectively and efficiently is not part of a communicator’s basic training. It’s one thing to educate – to deliver information accurately, even persuasively; it’s another to create advocacy that motivates action – in which faculty, staff, boards and other stakeholders become believers in the new direction and help make it happen. When communicators can help guide this process, the value of their expertise increases to institutional management.
Several recent projects as part of The Napa Group team have underscored the critical importance of this comprehensive approach:
- A state university system’s new strategic plan called for a university-wide marketing and communications council to be made up of faculty, administrators, alumni and others who could help shape messages about the value of economic and workforce development for all audiences. Such an approach positioned the communications office as the convener accountable for a more broadly engaging process, not simply the architect of the messages and activities.
- In another university, where the news office had focused nearly exclusively on the local news media, once reactive mid-level managers learned to become proactive partners to help cultivate enthusiasm for the new strategic direction among all stakeholders, internal and external. This approach incorporated a carefully defined “constituent engagement” process.
- When a new dean at yet another institution sought to develop a forward-looking strategic plan that would shake up the status quo, faculty were skeptical and in some cases resistent. From the outset, a comprehensive communications strategy was implemented collaboratively with faculty leaders who would be able to influence their peers to become believers, too, something that a more top-down approach by the dean would not have achieved.
As a practitioner of integrated marketing, I’m a big believer in the adage,”the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” and an advocate of forging the link between development and marketing communications, especially before the start of a major fundraising campaign. When executed successfully, such collaboration results in delivering the best customer experience.
So it was quite a throwback in a recent client engagement when marketing shaped the campaign message in marketing’s own image to put the institutional stake solidly in the ground, but with a deaf ear to the well-established vocabulary for motivating donor relationships. I describe this turf war as “inside-out” thinking in which the institutional pitch trumped the “outside-in” perspective, or crafting donor messages from a more external customer-centered view.
A collaborative approach between marketing and fundraising communications works only when the internal culture and leadership are supportive and set expectations for cooperation and respect for both parts of the communications team. What fundraisers know is that you have to make the case — people don’t give just because the cause is right. A strong case for support answers such questions as “why us?” “why now?” and “why philanthropy?” It’s essentially flipping the marketing message to what your audience values rather than telling them what they should value.
As one development communications manager told me, “the challenge is to keep the focus on what will interest, cultivate, engage or steward donors instead of just satisfying a few people (within our institution) at high levels.”
How ironic that these internal power plays risk losing the war – the share of customer that both marketing and development genuinely seek. For both sides, the textbook basics of marketing, whether practiced by the PR office or the campaign office, haven’t changed. Paraphrasing nonprofit marketing authorities Philip Kotler and Alan R. Andreasen from Strategic Marketing for NonProfit Organization, 5th Edition (1995):
- Use customer-centered strategies that meet the needs and wants of target audiences
- Articulate a visionary future that offers a clear sense of where the organization is going, what it will look like and what it will achieve when it achieves success
- Differentiate the organization from key rivals
- Define a sustainable roadmap through relationship building
- Use messages that are easily communicated – simple, clear and unambiguous to both staff and constituencies – but also offer flexibility for tailoring to target audiences
- Choose motivating language that attracts the enthusiastic commitment of those whose support will help achieve the institution’s goals
“Brand is what integrates fundraising and marketing,” Adrian Sargeant, PhD, the Robert F. Hartsook Chair in Fundraising at Indiana State University, said in Advancing Philanthropy (afpnet.org) back in 2007. To which I’ll add, absolutely, if it’s practiced right.