The following is an article that I wrote for the September 2013 issue of CURRENTS magazine, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Taking the Lifelong View
Indiana University East smashed its silos, embraced student affairs, and made managing the engagement lifecycle a priority
I’m not a radical guy. Indiana University East, a 4,000-student regional commuter campus that’s part of the Indiana University system, is not a subversive place. But to many advancement professionals, the integrated advancement model we operate under sounds crazy. Why? Because we added student affairs, known at IU East as campus life, to our division.
Five years ago our institution was transitioning from a community college to a university that grants bachelor’s and selected master’s degrees. The chancellor and I saw this as an opportunity to reorganize advancement in a heretical and holistic way. We wanted to eliminate advancement silos and develop a common-sense structure that focuses on lifetime engagement and starts where our institutional relationships begin—with prospective and current students.
Before we restructured, communications and marketing was a separate unit from alumni relations and development. Today the four units in our division each communicate with a different target audience in the engagement lifecycle. The name of our division, External Affairs, was deliberately chosen to convey a broader focus than the term advancement, which people often view as synonymous with development. In addition to handling strategic communications and brand management, communications and marketing works closely with admissions to reach prospective students. Campus life, which includes student activities, student government, and clubs and organizations, focuses on current students. There’s no mistaking the audiences—or duties—of either the gift development or the alumni relations and campus events office.
Putting students first
How unconventional is our approach? Only 21 percent of communications and marketing offices rank current students among their top three audiences, according to CASE’s inaugural survey on communications and marketing trends, which was conducted in February and March 2013.
It’s all about the students is a motto of mine, one that I borrowed from fundraising legend Jerold Panas, author of The First 120 Days: What a New College President Must Do to Succeed and executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners. We must continually connect our work to students and constantly renew the passion and enthusiasm that originally drew us to the rewarding field of higher education. In his book, Panas recommends higher education leaders take this student-centered message to heart and keep it in mind every day. But how do you translate this notion into meaningful lifetime engagement?
At any institution, lifetime engagement is no one’s job, yet everyone’s job. When territory is undefined or divided—like the functional silos often found in higher education advancement—programs, activities, and people can fall through the cracks. Our division decided to take on this mission and align our units to shepherd audiences across the crucial transition points.
We view having a hands-on role in student communications as a competitive advantage. Communications and marketing coordinates all major student messaging—including web, social media, email, and print—and partners with other units on projects and activities. From this vantage point, we ensure a consistent voice and common vision in communicating with prospective and current students as well as groups in other stages of the lifecycle. We think this is more efficient, especially with a relatively small staff of 16, and certainly more effective. We don’t worry about inconsistent or duplicate messages because we know what our audiences are receiving.
Direct interactions with students help us better relate and connect their successes to alumni and donors. Being in touch with students also makes our work more enjoyable and rewarding because we feel more closely tied to the institution’s educational mission.
To maximize integration and collaboration across all phases of the lifecycle, from prospective students to donors, information sharing should be seamless. Data regarding a student’s participation in campus groups and activities, for example, should be shared with the alumni office; otherwise, alumni relations staff members will essentially be starting from scratch. I dislike phrases such as cradle to grave and cradle to endowment, but that’s the essence of this approach—a strategic method of developing strong relationships and managing them over a lifetime.
Let’s talk about customer service
Our division’s objective is straightforward: Advance IU East’s mission by enhancing the institution’s reputation, relationships, and resources. These three R’s define our work and help us focus on emphasizing outcomes over outputs. Instead of a communications staff member thinking about her job as simply churning out campus news articles, we try to place her work within the larger context of earning reputation-enhancing attention, which plays an important role in our efforts to strengthen relationships and attract resources. It’s the difference between being effective and being busy (and it’s very easy to be busy in this kind of organizational structure).
Ultimately, we are charged with increasing the flow of resources to the institution. We can influence this primarily through fundraising and enrollment, which include both student recruitment and retention. To paraphrase higher education retention expert Neal Raisman: Students who don’t graduate don’t become alumni. Yet, how many advancement shops discuss or try to participate in campus retention efforts? While many factors and departments influence retention, advancement shouldn’t ignore its important role in this complex issue, which is a priority on most campuses.
Our staff members sit on committees and participate in initiatives related to retention and completion. We regularly communicate with academic leaders and deans about these issues. We also encourage staff to get out of the office and actually talk to students and make them feel welcome on campus.
Creating more opportunities for campus engagement leads to increased student success. That’s how we view campus life, and our communications and marketing efforts play a key role. Our integrated approach to student communications ensures students receive information that’s relevant and timely. Effective internal communications is a critical part of the student experience, and we know that students’ campus experiences will influence whether they choose to give as alumni. In other words, customer service matters.
To more easily relate retention to our work, we often use terms such as experience marketing and customer service. We’re not the Ritz-Carlton or Zappos, but having a service standard keeps us focused on delivering on IU East’s brand promise and reinforces our division’s commitment to lifetime engagement. Our standard is: We want everyone with whom we interact, whether students or alumni, to be meaningfully engaged with the university for their lifetime. Stating this and sticking to it help us keep customer service top of mind, see the big picture, and create a culture that values lifetime engagement. Having this mindset shifts our perspective from thinking of people as admitted students or event attendees to viewing them as partners in a lifelong relationship with the university.
For example, when incoming students participate in our Facebook class groups, campus life can surmise who will likely be active on campus before they even move in. Similarly, we can determine which students will probably be highly involved as alumni and, therefore, possible alumni leadership and development prospects.
Culture may be the most important factor in developing an integrated advancement model around lifetime engagement. The four units within our division communicate constantly, and the directors meet weekly. Our physical offices are in close proximity within the same building. When we’re not meeting as an entire staff, people often sit in on other units’ staff meetings to discuss ways to work together on projects and activities. All these factors contribute to the seamless system we are cultivating.
In a structure where offices and audiences intentionally overlap, we encounter some gray areas about roles and responsibilities, which we address through a culture of open communication and collaboration. The dividing line between alumni relations and gift development is not always clear, but overall, these intersections are positive side effects that reflect our shared ownership of these areas.
Since our reorganization we have experienced significant gains in both student recruitment and retention. Enrollment has increased 85 percent in the past five years. The other part of the equation is fundraising. Our lifetime engagement model is still too young to directly attribute growth to it, but we’re seeing success. In the past fiscal year, our total number of donors hit a record high, and our faculty-staff giving rate reached 92 percent.
On the communications side, we’ve benefited from the strong partnerships we’ve developed with other units. Such relationships blossom when multiple offices not only work together but also think beyond the scope of their own work. Our annual spring concert for students, for example, is now a successful event for a variety of audiences. Communications and marketing worked with local media to promote the April 2013 concert—headlined by Neon Trees—and reinforce IU East’s status as a traditional four-year university. Campus life, which organizes the concert, worked with communications and marketing and admissions to make the concert a memorable event that would attract targeted prospective students, but they also turned it into a special occasion for newly admitted students, who were given VIP seating.
Our division’s structure may look different, but managing each stage of the engagement lifecycle in this manner is just common sense. Aligning the offices so that they work together as audiences progress through each phase is a worthwhile and practical investment. In fact, IU East is a model for the lifetime customer relationship management project Indiana University is implementing across its eight campuses. The project combines three separate information systems—one for prospective students, another for current students, and yet another for alumni and donors—into one CRM tool.
Getting beyond internal barriers
So by now you’re likely on board with our lifetime engagement model. But you’re also thinking I was fortunate to have the chancellor on my side from the get-go, which made dismantling and reorganizing long-standing silos much easier. Implementing this approach at many institutions may pose a challenge due to internal forces and institutional barriers related to support, structure, culture, or history, but you can begin with basic steps. Try to spur some cross-functional conversations. Invite a colleague to coffee. Ask peers who work outside your area (but who deal with audiences or projects that align with your office) to attend your staff meeting—or see if you can sit in on their staff meeting. You’ll be amazed by what can you learn about other units in these settings. When the institution’s mission is the focal point, finding common ground is easy.
Another suggestion is to support the work of other campus offices. Volunteer to help at another unit’s event. Look for ways to develop partnerships with other departments. We always try to place someone from our division on the search committee for open staff positions. It’s a great way to find out what’s happening on campus and learn about another department’s challenges and opportunities.
When peers at other institutions learn about my division’s structure, they frequently say, “We could never do that at my university.” People are often intimidated by drastic change. My advice is to start small and identify some mutually beneficial opportunities to collaborate. When you realize that you share more commonalities than differences, you can begin to break down barriers.
By thinking, acting, and communicating with lifetime engagement in mind, we make sure our audiences are the top priority and avoid an institution-centric mode of communicating and managing relationships. In advancement, Panas’ mantra rings true, but I would add one thing: “It’s all about the students, not the silos.”