Digital Engagement ≥ Event Engagement? Yes.

When it comes to new ideas, higher education is on the bleeding edge in the classroom and noticeably behind in advancement.

Need proof?

Alumni participation in giving is half of what it was in 1990 (see CASE Currents, October, 2014).

The first and second articles in this series on alumni identity challenged two of the stalwart ideas that drive higher education fundraising: (1) that counting “things” amounts to alumni engagement and (2) that giving is primarily driven by observable alumni behaviors.

Enter alumni identity, a new way to understand the alumni-to-alma mater relationship that employs social psychology to both measure engagement and predict future support behaviors, such as giving (McDearmon 2011, 2013).

Recent research into the factors and characteristics that influence alumni identity has revealed several new paths forward for advancement as we look to increase the level of connection alumni feel for their school (Dillon, 2017).

The five factors that exert the greatest influence on alumni identity are, in order of influence:

  1. Volunteering for the institution
  2. Joining the institution’s official LinkedIn group
  3. Liking the institution’s official Facebook page
  4. Attending an institution-sponsored event
  5. Opening an e-newsletter from the institution

What’s striking about these findings is that three of the five factors that influence alumni identity most are digital engagements.

Let’s look a bit closer at items two, three, and four.

Considered independently by group, study participants who “liked” the university’s Facebook page and participants who attended a university event were found to have an identical average Alumni Identity Score of 54.30. In addition, the average identity score for participants who joined the university’s official LinkedIn networking group was even higher at 54.84. The average alumni identity score of all study participants was 50.18 (range=15-90, n=4,094) (Dillon, 2017).


These results suggest that digital engagements exert equal, if not greater, influence on the alumni identity of graduates when compared to simple event attendance.

Why is this important?

Because colleges and universities rely too heavily on alumni events to drive engagement and fundraising.

Events are costly, both in terms of budget and staff effort, and by nature can only ever engage a small segment of the institution’s overall alumni and donor base.

Research into alumni identity suggests that a redirection of resources and staff effort away from events and toward an investment in social media engagement will yield a similar a return on investment, and reach a much larger population of alumni, donors, and friends.

Practically speaking, a shift in engagement and fundraising strategy toward alumni who connect with the institution via social media opens up new worlds of possibility for annual fund appeals and major gift portfolio work.

The barrier to this approach, of course, is a college or university’s ability to access and record digital engagements. This process is extremely manual at worst and automated at best (EverTrue can provide tech solutions).

However, even a simple project to identify all alumni who have joined the institution’s LinkedIn group or liked its Facebook page would provide immediate dividends in surfacing new alumni prospects into annual fund segments and pipeline development towards major giving.

This is good news for advancement shops large and small, especially those entering the public phase of a campaign when existing donors have already been mined and there is a need to close out the goal with a slew of smaller gifts from new prospects.


Now back to the five factors that influence alumni identity. Number one is volunteering, but where does that fit?

If meaningful volunteer engagements are best at increasing alumni feelings of connection and inclination to give, where can institutions begin to offer new volunteer experiences? How can alumni identity and alumni identity scores be used to create new pathways for graduates to get involved?

Join me as we explore these and other questions.

Originally published in partnership with EverTrue

Jay Dillon