Also, others in the university want to survey graduates. These requests need to be managed: the last thing you want is to over-do the survey requests.
A bird’s eye view is needed.
Here are the FIVE main types of alumni survey, by how they help you:
- To assess curriculum/graduate employability
This is what most other divisions probably think of when you say ‘alumni survey’. Yet it does not relate to what happens in the Alumni Relations area nor is it funded or conducted by you.
Such surveys are imposed for good reason: they provide vital feedback for the university’s drive for excellence. They add to many data streams both inside and outside the university that enable it to assess academic performance and market offerings, as well as student support services. As part of the university’s efforts to ensure quality and further improve what is offered and how, they typically employ benchmarking to promote best practices.
Such surveys serve a critical purpose for the health of the overall institution. Your goal is to integrate them into your contact schedule and build other requests for feedback around them so alumni are not over-asked for feedback.
Also, you will benefit from seeing the findings. This may not come without lobbying on your part, however. How alumni view their student experience and success in the workplace help explain alumni behaviour - which is your purview.
Also, a long perspective is needed. It’s quite possible that the ‘value’ perceived by graduates in being an alumnus of the university will come to be treated as an integral part of the ‘brand’. Your actions can usher this appreciation in earlier rather than later.
- To obtain personal data
This type of survey seeks to pin down what specific alumni want. It’s is a census-type survey that asks about their interests, preferences, and attitudes to current alumni offerings. It creates a direct link to names for what you’re offering.
The beauty of this type of survey for alumni is that it promises choice and relevant programming. Your team love it, too, because it builds your database. Not only can you assess attitudes towards current and future offerings, you tailor news and invitations to specific alumni contacts. These are no small things!
While this type of survey may seem all you need, in practice it isn’t. There’ll still be big gaps in your understanding alumni behaviour (important if you are to influence it). This type of survey describes demand more than it explains it (although it may touch on such aspects).
Here are four reasons for this. Firstly, with privacy of concern to many these days, there’ll be limits to what alumni will disclose when their identity is known – things like income and other personal circumstances as well as how alumni really feel about supporting the university. Even if you don’t plan to target them directly about such things, alumni can feel you might.
Secondly, even if you get a great response rate, many still won’t join in. What about those who don’t participate? Your findings may not extrapolate to the wider alumni population.
Thirdly, alumni may not know what might interest them until they see the details. This is true in many other contexts and is likely to apply here, too.
Finally, once you ask people to tell you their names and what they like, they can expect it. The Alumni office needs a capacity to meet the expectations that the survey may overtly or subtly establish as well as be committed to doing so. Indeed, the organisation may need to ensure that it knows what alumni are now expecting so they can manage expectations and not disappoint.
- To evaluate an activity
This is the most straightforward type of survey you’ll conduct. You have an element in your program and you want to know Is it working for you? Can it be improved?
Your purpose is narrow – although related aspects to be explored are sometimes bolted on.
For example, if you have a newsletter, you measure readability and readership, and ask for feedback. If you run an event, you tally participation and ask for feedback. You track website visits and usage, and ask for feedback.
You want to know the extent to which alumni like - or value - something you are doing. You can find out what’s working and worth keeping, what’s not and needs changing, and what kinds of changes are needed. Such surveys are a perfect way to finetune the components of your communications and programming.
To get the most from this type of survey, typically conducted in-house, see if you can get a researcher to check its quality and give you tips. Your questions must be well considered (including not being biased) and you should not to read too much into the findings. Also, keep in mind that findings tell you about a specific activity not about larger more complex issues such as the sense of connection that alumni have to the university).
- To evaluate the impact of relationship-building efforts
This type of survey - typically referred to as an affinity survey - addresses the impact you are having for all your efforts combined. It focuses on the bond that alumni have with the university; it seeks to measure this by asking a wide variety of relationship questions such as ‘believing the university cares about alumni’ and ‘perceiving value in being an alumnus’.
Metrics indicate where attitudes and sentiment are strong and where opportunities for improvement lie. Questions also involve motives, preferences and open questions to understand the context for their responses.
To encourage openness and honesty, these surveys are commonly anonymous. Then demographic profiles are drawn to allow the Alumni team to take a segmentation approach to communications and programming.
Also, they involve benchmarking: the same indicators are used in subsequent surveys to reveal improvements from your engagement efforts – and opportunities opening up. Some surveys also offer comparisons with peer institutions, promoting cross learning and best practice. Sector comparisons are helpful for they provide a frame of reference for one’s own findings. The Barometer of Alumni Sentiment is an example here.
Such surveys are quite different to other types of alumni survey. Unlike ‘activity evaluation’ surveys – which address tactics – they provide strategic feedback. And where personal data surveys aim to build a picture of alumni interests, they build a picture of the relationship, both its stronger and weaker elements (‘you’ vs. ‘us’).
Their value lies in how far they go in helping you understand your alumni; they provide hard evidence of alumni disposition which is a strong driver for alumni choosing to engage. So when you look at your alumni engagement score (a tally of alumni behaviours), the drivers for this score are clearer, as are opportunities for improvement. Because they provide clear measures, they help you set objectives for future programming, and to evaluate past efforts.
Nonetheless, there are two big challenges using such surveys. Firstly, it’s tempting to dilute the affinity survey with unrelated questions. Even some external researchers will suggest this...those who aren’t familiar with the literature. We know from the rigorous academic studies - and from experienced practitioners - that alumni behaviour is complex. You need to dig deep to get a good picture of what’s happening. Secondly, you’ll get more from this kind of survey if you track your progress: this requires a commitment by the university to undertake the survey periodically. Those who are successfully benchmarking in this area strongly advise getting agreement in writing with senior management so it’s integral to managing the division.
Note: The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a variation of the affinity survey but it is not recommended as a replacement for a fuller survey – despite its tempting low cost. In simple terms, NPS asks alumni to rate their likelihood of recommending the university, and ratings are averaged to a single score that is tracked over time. However, getting a degree is a vastly different context to other types of goods and services using NPS: the level of involvement is extremely high and the ‘sunk costs’ are much, much higher with years of effort, course fees, identity, family pride etc. Not surprisingly, NPS scores for alumni tend to be high unlike other products with less involvement and less investment. They also don’t enlighten as to what is driving a new score. So while of some value, NPS alone means significant gaps in insights.
- To evaluate your resourcing/outputs
This last type of alumni survey is not alumni feedback at all. Yet it does concern alumni engagement efforts. This is an audit-type type survey - completed internally as a self-assessment or by an external party - which evaluates your division’s inputs and outputs.
It looks at your human resources (number of staff, salaries etc), your budget, equipment, training, the processes you use, what you do, when and how. It focuses on the investment in Alumni (inputs in all its forms) and observable performance - the number, type and success of programming elements (outputs in all its forms).
An example of this type of survey is the CASE Alumni Relations Survey, which seeks information from alumni offices and offers a comparison against peer institutions in any one year, and the opportunity to track individual progress over time.
This benchmarking of the Alumni process can be extremely valuable in promoting best practice and cross-learning; it can also give assurance to the university for the resourcing model they are using or proposing to use has been tested elsewhere with desirable results. This is a way for universities to ensure alumni engagement efforts can meet demands placed by the university.
Each of these five types of alumni surveys has a purpose and one cannot readily replace another. But you need to understand what they offer you.
The main thing is to know what information you want, and why.
Budgeting every year for alumni feedback - of one type or another - can be a BIG step. Doing so, however, aligns with the wider University’s emphasis on a culture of ‘quality’ and a philosophy of continuous quality improvement (CQI). Further, benchmarking is now accepted in higher education as one of the most successful processes for assessment and improvement of performance (Tsiotras, 2017).
Alumni surveys are good news for Universities. They provide essential feedback loops from alumni and alumni are central to institutional sustainability in a fast changing, highly competitive environment.
Prepared 17 March 2017 by Kym Madden, Principal, Customcom
Tsiotras, Konstantina T.P.G. (2017), “Benchmarking towards Excellence in Higher Education” in Benchmarking: An International Journal, Vol 24, Issue 3, accessed online.