It was February 2012, on an unassuming weekday afternoon, and I was sitting in a windowless conference room on the second floor of the Mabee Learning Center. (A space that will soon be transformed into part of our Common Grounds Coffee Shop, by the way, but that’s a story for another post.)
I was with two of my good friends and colleagues: Kent Allen, Vice President for Advancement, and Bob Lashley, Executive Director of Alumni Relations. Well-caffeinated and full from lunch, we settled in for an extended strategy meeting on alumni relations.
Our conversation revolved around two critical topics. The first topic centered on communication and marketing surrounding the upcoming inauguration of president John deSteiguer; and, piggybacking on inauguration, developing a communication plan for the president’s three vision points of “OC is Home,” “OC Grows,” and “OC is Mission.” This, in and of itself, was a full and complex topic. (And still is. How are we doing, by the way?)
The second topic was alumni participation—a turn of phrase that elicits groans and shivers across academia even now. Why? Well, by now most of our grads should know the alumni participation story backwards and forwards, but since this blog is (hopefully) read by grads and non-grads alike, let me give some background:
“Alumni participation” is a national measurement that is used to gauge university health and relevance based on how engaged (or disengaged) graduates are with their alma mater. The measurement assumes that more graduates giving back at any amount to their alma mater means a broader appreciation for the educational quality and culture of their school, a greater support for the current mission and direction of their school, and a higher level of engagement in school activities.
The alumni participation rate, which is calculated by dividing graduate givers by all living graduates (grad givers/all grads = participation rate), is used regularly by US News and other ranking entities, as well as by the government and foundation funders, to determine not only the health of a university but its investment potential.
You can think of it like this, in a nutshell: if a university’s closest constituents (its graduates) are not on board with giving and getting back to their alma mater, then why should anyone else climb on?
Now back to 2012 and to the confines of that windowless conference room. Why the groans and shivers? There had been (and still is) a national downward trend in alumni participation. Fewer and fewer grads were giving to their alma maters each year. Twenty straight years of decline, in fact…and no one seemed to have the solution.
Oklahoma Christian was no exception. By the close of academic year 2010-2011, OC’s participation rate had dropped every year for five years and had hit a 13-year low of 860 graduate givers (a 9.3% rate). Based on some more targeted marketing efforts, we’d seen a slight improvement in 2011-2012 (940 grad givers; 9.4%), but we still didn’t seem to be making any significant ground.
We were losing our graduates’ interest. Fast.
This is the challenge Kent, Bob, and I faced that afternoon. After 62 years, how do we start to convince 11,000+ graduates that simply the act of giving, at any level, has profound meaning? That the number of people giving means just as much as the amount given? And how do we make that giving drive more than a one-time thing?
How do we change culture?
I’m convinced that sometimes the best ideas are formed in the dark vacuum of empty space. When no one else has set a precedent, there’s no “best practice” to contain you, no box to obey. No university we could find had blazed a path on alumni participation in 2012. That freed us to blaze our own.
What came out of that meeting in 2012, and many subsequent strategy sessions with our creative teams, was a whole new (and ongoing) OC brand we call Homeward. In many ways, Homeward was the spiritual predecessor to Thrive. Launched in August of 2012, Homeward has many guiding ideas you’ll find familiar:
- Transparency regarding the true need and budgeting processes of the University
- Educating our alumni community about the impact of their gifts (in all sizes)
- Telling the story of alumni participation—explaining its background, purpose, and impact
- Offering alumni live, up-to-the-minute access to the current grad giving number (via the “Alumnometer”)
- Fostering greater collaboration and building community among our alumni
- Fanning the flames of our grads’ OC pride, passion for service, and competitive spirit
Sounds Thrive-like, doesn’t it? One of the reasons I’m so excited about Thrive is because it speaks to and builds on the relevance of Homeward. As the video above attests, Homeward has been a fantastic success—the guiding idea of “greater collaboration” being perhaps the brand’s greatest achievement. The list of names and groups is far too long to include here*, but the teamwork we’ve seen on and off this campus in support of Homeward has been both unprecedented and phenomenal.
940. That’s how many grads gave to Oklahoma Christian in 2011-2012. In just two years, the collective pride and enthusiasm of our grads, reignited by a timely and transparent campaign, has done more than just step up that number. Our Eagles have flat-out crushed two giving records in a row and more than DOUBLED the alumni participation count.
2278. That’s where we are today. 19.7%. We no longer trail the national average. We lead it by about eight points.
If you don’t know Homeward, I’d encourage you check it out at www.oc.edu/homeward. You’ll want to for two big reasons: (1) I think it will encourage you even more about the process and potential in Thrive, and (2) you’re about to see Homeward 2015 come online as a Thrive project.
As I’ve said before, we want to be very open with all our Eagles (alumni or otherwise) about the strategic focus of this campaign and our fundraising team. Homeward is one of those projects that doesn’t apply directly to everyone. But it remains incredibly important for this University, and its success signals a groundswell of pride and generosity that we need to steward and reinvest in regularly. We want everyone to know that grad giving is vital—so much so that we’re placing the grad giver count on equal footing with the $X million projects that occupy the Thrive menu.
If you’re an OC grad, I’d encourage you to give this year at whatever level feels right (and to whatever project you want!). It’s not about the money in Homeward. It’s about you. You count.
If you’re not an OC alum, I hope you’ll still watch the “Alumnometer” with great interest, knowing that the university you’re so invested in depends on and enjoys the support of thousands of gung ho grads. The Eagles are a passionate, amazing, status-quo-defying group. And our 2012 meeting to strategize about culture, and all subsequent efforts, didn’t make the Eagles that way, either. Because, ultimately, the question in Homeward and in Thrive isn’t so much about changing culture…
It’s about tapping into an incredible vein of energy that’s been here since 1950.
*Okay. I can’t help myself: Micah Domina, Jonathan Curtis, Nick Sayre, Stephen Bell, Judson Copeland, Wes McKinzie, Jana Miller, Kris Strobeck, Tessa Wright, Risa Forrester, Kent Allen, Bob Lashley, Chris Adair, John deSteiguer, Jamie Scott, Dana Holley, Sharon Lindsey, Bob Rowley, Jamie Haworth, Christine Merideth, Tonda Stafford, Todd Fraser, Aimee Furrie, Jessica Estrada, Susan Diaz, Darian Russell, Shelby Miscavage, Liz McElroy, Neil Arter, Stephen Eck, Jimie-Wray Mead, Kerianne Roper, Amanda Watson, Kayla Goodrich, Frank Davis, David Lankford, Linda Apple Young, Suzanne Vaughn, Kathleen Duncan, Ken Adams, Gene Shoemake, Phil Roberts, Harrison Barbarick, the Branch family, Lawson family, Compton family, the 60s “lunch bunch,” the National Alumni Council, all the OC clubs and their alumni, the OC Callout Crew, OC’s Team1, QuikPrint, Heritage Press, the OC Board of Trustees, my gracious and loving wife, anyone else I’ve forgotten, and some 2200 other awesome Eagles made Homeward happen. And we’re not stopping now.