Hot Topics in Community College Advancement

Paul Heaton (@HeatonPC) is director of the Center for Community College Advancement at CASE.

The hot topics in community college advancement, in many respects, mirror the hot topics of five and 10 years ago—but the approaches to them continue to evolve with technology and as new people come into the profession.

CASE hosted three online networking calls last week for community college advancement professionals, many of whom are new to the profession or to community college advancement. Here are some of the hot topics and suggestions that colleagues made.

Data-driven Marketing
This area is changing rapidly, due to more widely available technology and strategies. Consider:

  • Geo-targeting, which allows for more sophisticated targeting and personalization of marketing messages.
  • Customer relationship management software. Institutions are using this for everything from identifying and tracking prospective students to driving student intervention systems.
  • Online advertising: Some institutionally related foundations may be eligible for $10,000 in free Google ads per month.
  • Setting up automated email campaigns (whether for admissions, fundraising or alumni relations) based on how people respond to previous messages.

Scholarship Administration
Many community college foundations continue to manage what can be an arduous and time-consuming process: scholarship applications, selection and awards. While some have successfully partnered with financial aid offices to manage awards, others have had issues with incomplete awards and not being able to adequately steward donors as a result. Suggestions included implementing an online application system to improve efficiency and simplify the process for students.

Preventing Donor Fatigue
Community colleges should take a cue from four-year universities and be in front of donors more frequently. Universities are “stacking” one pledge after another, making for an almost perpetual campaign. As one participant said, “We have a tendency to apologize for our needs when we just need to be upfront and get donors excited about what we are doing. They will be on board.”

Engaging Foundation Board Members
Among the suggestions:

  • Have the board take responsibility for engagement, not staff.
  • Rotate board meetings to occur at members’ businesses or businesses of major donors.
  • Make sure the college has a strong strategic plan and vision that the board can embrace and become enthusiastic about.
  • Look at how you bring people onto the board, and be clear about expectations. A commitment letter can go a long way avoid confusion and position a new member for success.
  • Give people specific, short assignments, so people know what they will be doing and how long the commitment will last.
  • Have a face-to-face meeting with each board member at least once a year.
  • Look for ways to add fun to meetings, such as handing out “Kudos” bars, watching a TED Talk and collecting stories that reinforce their role with the college.

Alumni Affinity Groups
Several community colleges have successfully launched alumni affinity groups for specific academic programs or athletic or student groups. Some considerations:

  • Phi Theta Kappa can be a good source for alumni affinity groups.
  • Identify policies and guidelines for affinity groups, develop baseline for what services the alumni office will provide and explain what the affinity group leaders will be expected to do.
  • Select groups based on their potential to succeed, the availability of active, engaged leaders and college priorities.
  • Identify a milestone for a new affinity group to help get it off the ground.

Alumni: Friend-raising or Fundraising?
Many participants in the calls discussed having competing priorities for their alumni relations programs. Suggestions:

  • Be clear about what the priorities should be.
  • Consider how you make the transition from friend-raising to fundraising, and allow adequate time for cultivation and engagement.
  • Be sure to incorporate clear metrics about your goals.
  • Be sure to identify the many ways that alumni support the college beyond philanthropy. (For example: determine number of alumni-owned businesses, count how many alumni come to campus events.)

The CASE InfoCenter maintains a sample collection of community college alumni relations plans (Member login required).

Alumni Events
Networking events can be successful, especially if partnering with a community partner/business. Look for ways to connect current students with former students, such as through career services and mentoring. At one school, for example, alumni partner with residence halls to host a year-end party for students. Host distinguished alumni events, distinguished service awards and recognize different types of alumni.

Good Advice

  • With so many community college alumni programs just beginning, and alumni relations professionals who have myriad other responsibilities, knowing where to start and how to prioritize can be challenging. Participants in the networking calls offered the following:
  • Know priorities and stand up for them. Remind volunteers of them, and explain why you can’t do other things.
  • Don’t isolate, integrate your alumni relations efforts throughout the college. Tie in to existing events that departments are having, rather than having events that are considered solely “alumni” events.
  • Leverage technology to understand engagement (newsletter open rates, for example), and establish a “moves management” approach to alumni engagement. Many communications can be automated, yet still be personalized.
  • Start with a smaller committee; big groups are harder to manage.
  • Have a clear charge and plan for the group before it forms, then have them help with implementation.
  • Make sure the college and foundation are both clear about the purpose and the expectations.

Set Realistic Expectations
Benchmarking Alumni Relations in Community Colleges, published in 2013, contains a wealth of data that schools can use to benchmark their efforts. The survey was repeated in 2015, and results will be presented at the Conference for Community College Advancement, Oct. 1-3, in Anaheim, California.

CASE conducts “Hot Topics” networking calls several times throughout the year. If you’d like to suggest a topic, contact Paul Heaton, director of the Center for Community College Advancement, at

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