Will the Internet Obsolete Alumni Associations?

Facebook comments, LinkedIn Group discussions, and tweets are the coin of the realm. Our outdated bulletin boards have always been a wasteland, but we've finally stopped gazing at them expectantly.
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I recently spent a day lecturing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At a small lunch hosted by President Jared Cohon, I met Andy Shaindlin -- the very thoughtful head of Alumni Relations & Annual Giving. After the lunch we sat down to discuss the future of the Alumni function at universities, entertaining a very provocative idea -- Will the Web Cause the Disintermediation of Alumni Associations? His views about how Alumni Associations need to transform themselves to avoid disintermediation were so stimulating that I asked him to write a blog about them. -- Don Tapscott

In 2008, I picked up a new book by the well-known author and professor Clay Shirky. The book, Here Comes Everybody, looked interesting. But the provocative sub-title is what hooked me: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

My entire career has depended entirely on the success of a very specialized kind of organization -- an alumni association. I needed to check this out. And I quickly found what I was looking for.

On page 66, in a discussion of bloggers' relationship to traditional news media, Shirky wrote:

"[Blogs] are not merely alternate sites of publishing; they are alternatives to publishing itself..."

In mid-2008, when I read this, there was a lot of speculation as to what online social networks' long-term roles would be... I did a quick word-substitution exercise and produced the following version for my profession:

Online social networks are not merely alternate sites for alumni organizations; they are alternatives to alumni organizations themselves.

Before this, alumni relations professionals and university fundraisers had been thinking about how to recreate the features of popular social networks on our own websites:

Facebook has photos to go with members' profiles? We'll let alumni add their photo to our alumni directory!

LinkedIn lets users list past jobs? We'll add a field for "Past employment" to our alumni directory!

One problem with this approach was that we focused almost entirely on the features of our so-called online communities, instead of explaining the benefits. We were like car salesmen, telling buyers, "Our vehicles have 270 horsepower" -- instead of explaining that "you can go from zero to 60 in under 5 seconds."

Another problem was scale. Behind our ivied walls, we arrogantly believed that exclusivity was all-important. For the average alum, however, valuable though the alumni community might sometimes be, having one's many networks connect to each other was more important. Classmates, neighbors, co-workers, friends, family -- they were all on Facebook (or soon would be, it was clear). So why require yet another URL, username, password, and profile when alumni could already do it all on a single site? Or on two sites, once LinkedIn became known as "more professional" than Facebook.

So scale trumped exclusivity and alumni websites lost the battle for online community. But to this day, it's as if alumni associations still don't understand what happened. We still pay tens of thousands of dollars every year for "online community" software that alumni don't want, but that alma mater just can't bear to give up. Why?

Fast forward to 2012. Many alumni associations stubbornly cling to the idea that alumni relationships should be hosted on a .edu website. But we've grudgingly populated Facebook (Groups, then Pages), LinkedIn (individual profiles, then Groups), and Twitter (individual streams, then institutional ones).

And many of us, including some campus marketing and communications professionals, haven't yet acknowledged that online social platforms aren't broadcast outlets. People join Facebook to share their interests, ideas and activities with friends and family, to tell stories about what matters to them. They don't join because they need to download a PDF of the press release announcing this year's teaching awards.

Communities like ours (as opposed to individuals) must learn to maintain slightly more modest expectations about how alumni will interact with us online.

And yet, things are changing at last. Several signs point to a more effective accommodation between alumni associations and the online venues that have usurped their roles. For example:

  • We finally understand that we've lost the monopoly we long-held over data.
  • Itching to get back in touch with your old flame from senior year? Powerful online search means you'll scan Google, Facebook and LinkedIn without wondering whether alma mater will put you back in touch. The alumni directory is dead.
  • We don't expect alumni to come to our website for discussions.
Facebook comments, LinkedIn Group discussions, and tweets are the coin of the realm (plus the occasional blog post, Tumblr, or maybe -- someday -- Google+ Hangout). Our outdated bulletin boards have always been a wasteland, but we've finally stopped gazing at them expectantly.

We're becoming accustomed to small, dense networks of alumni planning and holding their own mini-reunions.

Ubiquitous, free online event software (including built-in tools on popular social sites) enables alumni to choose the date, time, format and cost of alumni events. And the volunteers can pick and choose who makes the invite list, and who is excluded.

We can sum up the outcomes of these examples just the way I interpreted Shirky's observation in 2008:

Alumni are organizing -- without alumni organizations.

This is a function of technology's influence on group behavior. Accepting this means we need no longer devote our staff time (and meager budgets) to fighting Facebook for attention. And if we're prudent, we'll use these newly liberated resources to establish our next viable role in the lives of alumni.

But what is there left to do? Alumni associations' future roles will be less authoritative and more participatory. They will be equal contributors to online conversations, not know-it-all sources of official information. There are too many channels for alumni to choose from when seeking solutions to real-life problems. We'll need to be happy serving as one source among many, and will need to adjust our expectations for online interaction accordingly.

And I'm sure we can make the transition. The question is, will we do it before we render ourselves obsolete to alumni? Because when that happens, we'll be obsolete to our institutions as well.

Andy Shaindlin has 23 years of experience in higher ed, and holds a master's degree in education. He is the founder and author of the Alumni Futures website (http://alumnifutures.com), and tweets from @alumnifutures.

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