Alumni Engagement Goes Digital

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EDUCAUSE Community Conversations | Season 3, Episode 1

CASE President and CEO Sue Cunningham discusses the impact of technology on alumni relations and the shift toward meeting people where they are, which is increasingly online. She also talks about her new book Global Exchange: Dialogues to Advance Education.

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John O'Brien: Welcome everyone to another community conversation. And I'm excited to be here today with Sue Cunningham. She's the president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, or CASE. CASE is a global nonprofit focused and dedicated to the advancement of educational professionals literally around the world. Sue, it'd be great to hear you talk a little bit about CASE in your own words as well.

Sue Cunningham: Well, John, thank you so much for welcoming me here. It's great to be with you. And a little bit about CASE, well, CASE as you expressed as the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. We're going to be 50 years old next year. We have about 3,000 members around the world, and our members are schools and colleges and universities in about 80 countries. And each of our member institutions gives us a roster of the people they want to engage with CASE. And we're approaching a hundred thousand in total who want to engage in some shape or form with CASE. And we focus on advancing education to transform lives in society. So our members work within advancement, which we categorize as communications, marketing, fundraising, alumni relations, advancement services, sometimes enrollment management. So it's the whole piece that is about external engagement for institutions. And we all know how critical that is to advance education here and in many other parts of the world.

John O'Brien: I always think of CASE as being such an international organization. Maybe it's your accent, I don't know. But, I mean, you think of all the other higher ed associations out there, the alphabet soup of nonprofits. But CASE being so international, does it just fundamentally change how you approach the challenges of higher ed?

Sue Cunningham: I think there are many variables in different parts of the world. And I think when one has members in many different parts of the world, you need to be sensitive to that. One of the key areas there is around attitudes to higher education. And one can say things about attitudes to higher education which are consistent, say in the UK and the US and Canada. But then if you go to Asia, for example, education is still perceived as an enormous public good. And if I take the government of Singapore, for example, they've been providing match funding for philanthropy three to one for years for universities to help them build their endowments.

So I guess one of the things about being a global organization is knowing that one needs to have a deeper regional knowledge in order to express perspectives and views. I think the other is a confirmed belief. And this is true I think of the work of every educational association, whether it be in one country or many, and understanding of the value of learning from different directions. And in an environment where certainly parts of the world are becoming increasingly inward looking, I think I feel a strong and powerful commitment in a global organization to emphasizing why education is such a global pursuit and why it's critical as educators that our hearts and minds are open to learning from every corner of the globe and not limited to our own individual patch.

John O'Brien: I do think the Global Exchange book is really engaging. And on this specific topic, you have a whole chapter dedicated to the changing or eroding perception of higher ed. And you've talked about it as a global phenomenon. And clearly, in the United States it is pretty much a story of erosion. I mean, it seems like one possible explanation could be that as access is widened, if it's available to more people, maybe it's seen as less of a public good because it's less special. I don't know. Have you developed any theories, or are theories like that mentioned in the book at all?

Sue Cunningham: Certainly the conversation and the book Global Exchange, which was published last November, there are 10 chapters which are a series of conversations from educational leaders and philanthropic leaders around the world on different topics. And as you described, there was one really looking at the public perception of the value of higher education. Certainly the chapter covered and the speakers were from the UK, well, from England and Scotland and Australia and the US. And I think those countries have a number of consistencies. I think your question about why perceptions are different in different places is a really interesting one. And I think in some respects it's inherently built into the culture of those places. And it's a sweeping statement to say Asia has one perspective because Asia, as we know, has numerous countries in it with different cultures. And even still, I think the essence of the higher regard in which education is held and being the biggest gift that you can give to your family or your community, you'd have a better idea than me of why it isn't perceived in that light at times in the US.

And I think where the UK is concerned, I think part of the issue is a lack of comprehension around the funding model potentially, and therefore a dissatisfaction or a concern about that. But without a doubt, I think this is an area where there's work to be done. CASE is working in partnership with the American Council of Education and AGB, the Association of Governing Boards, with funding from the Gates Foundation to really focus in on what we can do to shift the needle. And part of that is about pooling the resources of many educational institutions to think about how we illuminate and communicate the huge impact and benefit of education societally, individually, in terms of transforming lives in society. And I think, of course, individual institutions do a really good job of that, but I think a collective voice can be powerful. Nothing is going to change it overnight. But I think a concerted effort over time together with many of our colleagues around the Washington Higher Education Secretariat table will be critical to shift the needle because there's no question in my mind that education is a critical and valuable public good.

John O'Brien: So it seems to me that this work that CASE is involved in with philanthropic work and alumni engagement, that within our careers has transitioned from an art to a science. And I'd love to hear the role that CASE plays in evolving and maturing this data and research practice.

Sue Cunningham: I remember when I was at the University of Melbourne, I had a colleague who was very much in love with the art of philanthropic engagement and disliked the science intensely. And when she liked something, she'd say it was gorgeous. And when she disliked it, she'd say it was interesting. So her attitudes have stuck with me. But I think by and large the rest of the profession has moved on. And again, it depends in different organizations, in different parts of the world that are in different stages of the evolution. And the reality is, and of course your members are more than aware of this, data is critical in determining strategy. And as the work of engagement has become increasingly strategic and critical to the wellbeing and the success of institutions, the ability to be far more data-driven whilst not losing sight of the fact that relationships are at the core of all successful engagement.

But the data in CASE has a number of surveys and studies, including the voluntary support for education survey, which has been going here in the US for over 40 years. But the data informs and is critical in terms of determining strategy. We've recently also developed, we have a number of surveys around the world measuring philanthropic engagement, but we also developed four or five years ago alumni engagement metrics, which mean now there are metrics for alumni engagement, which historically the only engagement for alumni in metrics was the donor participation, which as we know is an incredibly blunt metric because the denominator gets bigger every year.

And alumni engagement can manifest and benefit institutions in myriad ways, so which philanthropy is an important, but only one. So I think that's a critical piece. The other thing I just reflect on in terms of data in the community of advancement professionals who are focused on this area is growing immensely. And CASE took on a conference a number of years ago, our DRIVE conference, which happens every spring in the Northern Hemisphere where we have over 45,500 people signed up already for this conference who are really coming together to focus on how critical data is in our work and how it is driving so much decision making now.

John O'Brien: Well, like you, Educause is part of a major conversation around data and analytics. And I suspect, like you, we are also very quick to talk about the potential ethical implications of expanded use of data and potential misuse. So I'll bet you have a thought or two on that as well.

Sue Cunningham: Well, that's a really important point. And there have been a number of different pieces of data legislation, which I know you're aware of, that have brought considerable thought and refinement in recent years. I mean, one was GDPR, which of course came out of the European Union and affect any institution that has anybody from Europe on their database. And GDPR wasn't new legislation, but the EU determined to reinforce it. And with that came a lot of focus and analysis about how to proceed in that regard. And obviously, there are other pieces of data protection legislation. And the UK a few years ago introduced a fundraising regulator because of anxiety about excessive outreach in an unsolicited way. So this is becoming increasingly important. And obviously, the work of engagement, whether it be around philanthropy or whether it be around engaging people from the community globally or locally in the success of institutions, it's critical for the reputation of the institution and those we're engaging with that we are being ethical in all that we do.

And CASE published for the first time in 2021, after 40 years of additions, a set of global reporting standards, which are absolutely explicit not only on what can and cannot be counted and counting mechanisms around philanthropy, but it also includes the principles of practice for all of the aspects of the professions, the ethical standards, and a whole set of ethics around donor influence and what it's appropriate for donors to influence and what it's inappropriate for donors to influence. And all CASE members receive a digital copy of the global reporting standards as part of their membership.

So if listeners have not yet come across the global reporting standards, all 309 pages of them, I encourage you to reach out to your advancement colleagues to find out more there. A president on a panel I was interviewing a few months ago, when I asked why it was important for us to have ethics in advancement work worldwide, he said, "It's very simple, Sue. It's like a stack of dominoes. If one institution anywhere in the world does not adhere to these professional ethics, then it has the potential to have a negative impact on the whole sector."

John O'Brien: I agree. It's really important. The larger issue of ethics is understanding that the work we do isn't just the work we do, that it's always the work we do has implications outside of our immediate understanding in some cases. Over the last few years, there's been a global phenomenon of urgency and understanding around diversity, inclusion, and equity and social justice and reconciliation and all of that. How has that touched the work that you do at CASE?

Sue Cunningham: It's not only at the heart of our strategic plan, but it's also a chapter of this Global Exchange book. There are a number of aspects to this work, one within our organization. We brought in an organization to help us do a review of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within CASE. I remember receiving the report and it being actually hard to read because there were things that I hadn't heard before and it was important we heard and important that we're working through and we created a steering committee out of that. And we were on a journey, both individually I'm on a journey and organizationally. We established about two years ago now an opportunities and inclusion center where we're focusing on our membership, where we're really thinking about two strands. One is about diversifying the profession. And when I have the pleasure of speaking at CASE conferences, I tend to be looking at a sea of faces that is not as diverse as the societies in which they are operating.

And we all know that if teams of professionals are as diverse as communities they're working with, then they will be far more successful. So we're committed to working to diversify the professional with our member institutions. And we have internship programs and graduate traineeship programs and minority advancement institutes and a number of other things that we're working to develop this. Another thing the opportunity inclusion center does is look at how we can help minority serving institutions with capacity building. And as we know, there are a number in that category who have not had the resources to invest in building advancement operations in the way that some institutions have. So really helping to work with those institutions to look at how we can support them in building that strength and capacity for the future success of those institutions.

John O'Brien: You mentioned CASE has been around for 50 years?

Sue Cunningham: [inaudible 00:13:45].

John O'Brien: 50 years. And if you think of EDUCAUSE, the combination of our merged organizations in before it's probably been around 40 years. So we've been around for a long time doing important work. The last three years I would venture to say are like no other three years in any of our histories. So what has CASE learned about leadership in a crisis, leadership in a pandemic?

Sue Cunningham: Interestingly enough, there was a subject, a chapter on this in the book, which was all about leading through crisis. And I'll start off by quoting one of the participants in that, a gentleman called Imad Baalbaki, who is the VP for advancement at the American University in Beirut. And I remember [inaudible 00:14:29] in Beirut, as we all know, has been through a number of crises of which COVID is just one. And in recent years, of course, there was that appalling bomb that went off in the middle of Beirut. The currency in Beirut has gone through a very troubled time. And then of course there was the pandemic. And I remember asking Imad how you knew when a crisis was over. And he smiled and said, "When the next one begins." I think I'm still learning and absorbing from the last three years. I think we'd moved a long way already by 2020 from the notion that leaders were about standing up and being directive with colleagues.

And I think what one of the things the pandemic has done is really emphasized why being a servant leader is so important. That empathy, that support, that engagement with one's colleagues holistically rather than just focusing on what needs to get done on any given day has become more and more important. And acknowledging that the last three years are ones that, in many respects, one would wish not to have to live through again. At the same time, I think a couple of silver linings from the pandemic. One is we as an organization had been talking about building out online learning capacity for years. And we'd been doing webinars for years, but we hadn't really built out from there. Gosh, the pandemic accelerated that. So we now have a learning management system. We have an expert in-house who's helping develop this. And of course, all of our programs, and we run 80 or so conferences a year, were online by May of 2020. And most of our programs are taught by volunteers and their nimbleness in transitioning to online was fabulous.

So I think that's been something of a silver lining. I think the other is the emphasis on, during the pandemic, we all, I think, refocused somewhat on the things that matter most to us in life. There's no question in my mind if we look at the growth of philanthropic engagement, if we look at the growth of alumni engagement and participation and community participation in educational institutions, education is something that is core to many people's lives. And that, whether it be around some of the remarkable research that institutions were doing around vaccines and other things, or the incredible service that institutions were providing in their communities, or that sense of connection to the people and the organizations that mattered most to you in the time of trauma. And I just think if ever we were querying whether individuals really value what educational institutions do, I think the pandemic demonstrated that. So interestingly, that's at odds with your conversation we had earlier about the public perception of higher education. And I think it still adds up in terms of what we saw during the pandemic.

John O'Brien: I agree totally that the story of what we have learned and what we pass on to the next generation is what we give back. It is higher ed's contribution to the world. I have to say, you brought this on yourself with that wonderful quote about you know that the crisis is over when the next one comes. So of course, predictably, what's the next one? This is your chance to go live and say what you think.

Sue Cunningham: What's the next crisis? Well, I'm an internal optimist, so I don't want to think about what the next crisis is. I think there's going to be some interesting deepening of understanding. We're all going through this great experiment. And EDUCAUSE has taken a different approach to CASE, although you were sort of in a different context to CASE before the pandemic. But there's this experiment about, what does working look like now? Are people like I am today in an office? Are people working at home? Are people, to what extent do they need to physically be together? And I know that different organizations in the profit and not-for-profit sector have chosen very different paths. And I think reckoning is too strong a word, but I think the learning from this experiment in the next five to 10 years will be important.

I think another big piece, and I think this is particularly pertaining to educational associations, is we had an interesting conversation at a retreat recently about my generation became members of this association because it's our association, so of course I would be a member of it. And because I've been involved as a volunteer and a member for many years before I got this job, I think that is not necessarily true of the generations that have preceded me. And there's more of a need for, what can we deliver? What are we offering last week, next week, the week after next? And so I think, as ever with membership associations, we need to be incredibly focused on member value and what membership need is. And I think that that is going through quite a significant transition. And we'll test our mettle and our innovation over the months and years to come.

John O'Brien: The opposite version of the being part of a group because you were a member is the Oscar Wilde about never being part of any group that would have you as a member as well. So as I look at the Global Exchange book, one of the themes that just keeps hitting me from different angles is this idea, this persistent idea that it's more important than it ever has been to join the dots within our institutions and to find ways to connect and partner outside our institutions. Was I looking for that, or was that a recurring theme in the Global Exchange?

Sue Cunningham: I think that joining the dots is part of what we do as leaders every day. I think that if ever there were a time that institutions need to connect and come together more profoundly than ever before, I think it's now. As I mentioned earlier, certainly with the movements in some parts of the world about there being increasing inward looking on the part of nations and political leaders, I think education needs to be pursuing the opposite of that. And I think that's because as we're looking at immense global challenges, whether they be political challenges, whether they be environmental challenges, whether they be health challenges, if the pandemic taught us anything, it is any individual country or any individual institution cannot weather this on their own. That we have to come together in order to solve some of these global challenges. And we see many educational institutions who are really dedicated to doing that.

And we see, if one thinks about the philanthropic community, increasingly philanthropists who are able and interested in making transformational gifts are looking to do so by weaving a number of institutions' strengths together. And some of them may be educational, some of them may be in government, and so on and so forth. But really thinking up and outside of our own individual boxes and really thinking about, what can we really do if we work on this together and stop pulling in different directions? When I was working on the book, president Ana Mari Cauce from the University of Washington had this wonderful phrase about giving serendipity a push. And really, I interpreted it as many things are going on around us at any given point in time. But again, as leaders, as institutions, how can we grab opportunities, lift them up, and maximize them? And I think stepping outside of our immediate circle and looking more broadly is an incredibly important and exciting thing to do.

John O'Brien: Sue, I think we've connected because, I've never said this out loud, so why don't I just do it in front of the whole world? It means a lot to me to have you here. And part of it is because of you as a leader. I think you've just been the kind of marvelous, gracious, generous with your time leader that is an inspiration to everyone. And I also think there's a way our two organizations are connected. I mean, I think that professionals in your organization probably rely on technology differently than they ever did. Are our two organizations coming closer and closer together over time?

Sue Cunningham: I think it links completely into that art and science conversation. I think the short answer is yes. The conversation in the book about the future of alumni relations and hearing from alumni relations professionals from different parts of the world. And I could have been talking to a group of marketing and communications professionals. I mean, really thinking about segmenting, about targeting, about the interface between alumni communities and the institutions. And the extent to which the old model was, we have a list of alumni, we put them on a database, they update it regularly because they tell us every time they move or not. And we control the interaction between alumni. As we know, the world has moved on significantly from there.

And it's thinking about how we connect with alumni where they are or with our communities where we are. And technology plays an absolutely critical role in that, as it does in almost every facet of relationship building and engagement for institutions worldwide. And I guess I'd finish on reflecting one of the latest pieces of technology that is, I think, inspiring and troubling and everything in between, chatbot. But thinking about, again, I'm sure that EDUCAUSE is doing a lot of thinking about this. But what are the implications? And of course, it has implications, and I would argue, opportunities for all of our institutions. So I think this partnership, which I enjoy enormously, John, and our interactions have been positive and warm and fruitful. So I look forward to many more to come.

John O'Brien: I love this idea that advancement is all about meeting people where they are, and increasingly where they are is right here. And so I think our fates are connected and will be connected as we go forward. So thank you so much for coming. I know that people listening are going to be intrigued by a lot of these ideas. If they want to learn more, if they want to read the 300-page book, where could they go to do that?

Sue Cunningham: So if they want to read the CASE global reporting standards, they can find details on our website, This is CASE Global Exchange. It's the first book I've written, so I have to admit, I'm a bit shy about doing this. So I'll put it down again. And there are 40 other voices in it, which is why I'm less shy, because they're brilliant. I just had the honor of weaving it together. So again, Global Exchange, you can buy it from our website, And if you do, I hope you enjoy it.

This episode features:

Sue Cunningham
President and CEO

John O'Brien
President and CEO