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Changing the way we think about advancement and alumni identity

31 min read

“I think I would benefit more if a school took an interest in who I am today, rather than who I was when I was 20.”

A great conversation on advancement with Dr. Jay Dillon, founder of Alumni Identity. Jay talks with Mike about how institutions should change the way they think about and view alums and donors, and how that strategy has led to better results for USF and UCLA. (Plus, hear the best email subject line he’s ever used – 23% open rate!)

Mike K: Hello everyone, and welcome to the presently unnamed Mongoose Podcast, I'm your host, Mike Kochczynski, and I'm lucky enough to be a Client Success Lead with Mongoose. I work with about 80 of our nearly 400 client colleges and universities, and today we'll speak with Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, a social scientist, and veteran fundraiser from UCLA, and University of San Francisco. He's the founder of Alumni Identity, a new approach to higher education fundraising, that combines Social Psychology with data science to manage the way alumni feel about their alma mater, and then use that information to accelerate philanthropy.

Outside of higher education, Jay is a proud redhead, with an 11-month-old redhead son, named Alex, who was born on Thanksgiving last year. Dr. Dillon is a trained musician, and planned on becoming the best band director in the State of California before discovering the world of higher education advancement. Jay is married to a Major Gift Officer, from the University of California San Francisco Medical School.

Mike K: 
Jay, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I'm happy to be here, Mike. Thanks for having me this presently unnamed podcast.

Mike K: Well, we're honored to have you. So, I alluded to it a little bit when I talked about the background in music, but how did you find yourself in advancement?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, I come from a family of educators, and had always thought about being a teacher myself, and that's what I desired when I was in school. I went to school for music education, and my senior year, I found that I needed a job, of course, like all music majors do, and I found a position doing some phone calling at the UCLA Alumni Association, and I really liked it. I thought it was an aspect of education, higher education in particular, that nobody really thinks of, but students really need, and that's the support of alumni in all forms, including fundraising.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So I found myself in this job, I really enjoyed it. It was great to have a full-time gig, and that's how I got started in advancement.

Mike K: So you were a caller for annual funds then, I would imagine, for the most part?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Actually, through the Alumni Association.

Mike K: Got ya.

Dr. Jay Dillon: At one point, I held the record for the total number of completed phone calls in a single year, it was something like 19,200 phone calls that I made in a single year.

Mike K: That's pretty incredible. How was that experience as a student caller?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, I enjoyed it, and I think you either love it or hate it, and that probably says a lot about the institution, too, because I think anybody can be a really good advocate for their alma mater. I think, sometimes, being a phone caller is a great way to figure out whether or not you enjoy it.

Mike K: That makes sense, and so, you moved up the ranks at UCLA, right?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I did. I spent eight years in the Advancement Office at UCLA. I had a lot of different jobs, some of the best titles in my career, for sure. The last job I had was Executive Director of Alumni Strategic Initiative. That was awesome. I was in charge of everything from the UCLA Spirit Squad, to our career programs, and Alumni Scholarship Program. It really ran the gamut, it was a lot of fun.

Mike K: That's great, and you were a VP of Finance for a while as well, right?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I was. You know, I think that's proof positive that musicians are good at math. When our Chief Financial Officer left for a great new job, and they were looking around the organization for somebody who had experience with budget and revenue, particularly, I had been the Director of Business Development for several years. So they leaned on me, and somewhere out there in the ether, is an IRS 990 form, with my signature on it, and it's probably one of the proudest moments of my career, being able to step in at a difficult time for the organization, too, in the wake of the recession, and really help the UCLA Alumni Association thrive.

Mike K: That's great. So, you were at UCLA, and from there you went to University of San Francisco, right?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Yes, I went to the University of San Francisco, and what I've often told people, is if I knew how happy I could be somewhere else, I would have left UCLA a few years earlier. So there's a little career tip for your listeners who are in advancement. I think, often, we get a start at our alma mater, especially in this work where you can't really go to school for fundraising, but it is a profession, it's a professional space and so I encourage people to, not bounce around and spend a year or two with different institutions, but take that leap of faith, and try stepping out to do something new.

Mike K: Right, now UCLA, large major public institution. University of San Francisco, smaller, private, not too small, but probably a medium-sized institution we'd say, certainly a different market than LA, so what was that adjustment like?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, what attracted me to the University of San Francisco, was that it was a smaller institution, as you mentioned, with enormous potential to grow, in terms of it's alumni engagement, and annual fund operation. When I arrived at USF, there were only two staff in the Alumni Engagement office with a-

Mike K: Wow.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Yeah, with an alumni population approaching 100,000. So the denominator in that equation just wasn't balanced. We needed more staff, and that's what drew me away from UCLA, was the opportunity to build my own thing. So I arrived at the University, wrote the alumni engagement strategic plan, the first one that we had ever had at the institution. Hired nine amazing people; recruited and mentored them, and in my departure from the university several months ago now, I was really proud that my staff was able to continue, and that several of them were promoted into positions of management to take on, and continue the good work that we were doing.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So it was the opportunity to build something from the ground up, which I don't think exists often in Advancement. We are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to trying new things.

Mike K: Absolutely. So, what did you strategize, then?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well for an institution that is 150-years-old, University of San Francisco did not have a sustained engagement strategy when it came to staying in touch with alumni. I think, like many institutions, the university has changed over the decades. One of the first things I did, was to evangelize among the staff and our alumni board, the idea that alumni didn't owe us anything.

Mike K: Right.

Dr. Jay Dillon: In fact, that now, it is the case that we owe them everything. This is a shift in thinking for most people in the advancement world, and one that I think is going to bear fruit for those who are disciplined enough to follow it. So our engagement was structured around the strategy of approaching alumni relations and fundraising with the attitude that we're here to do more for alumni than we are asking them to do for us.

Mike K: That's great, and yeah, I think you bring up a good point. We'll talk about your research in a little bit, but I think a lot of institutions mistake engagement for fealty, right? That alumni engagement isn't just, you're going to go to the events, you're going to join the networks that we want you to join, but it's allowing alumni to create whatever organic movement they want to create and you sort of serving it.

Dr. Jay Dillon: That's right, Mike. The idea that you would drive around with a license plate frame from your alma mater, or wear a sweatshirt on the weekend with the name of your school on it, this is a uniquely American thing. It's built into the American psyche. You do not see people driving around in Prague, with a sweatshirt on that says Charlemagne University, and a bumper sticker on their Vespa. Right?

Mike K: Right.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Even though that is the oldest university in that part of the world, so you got to ask yourself, what is it that we're engaged in here? Are we really making a false assumption from the get go, and that is, alumni should care about us? I don't think retail brands approach their customers that way.

Mike K: Interesting, and I'm really excited ... We're going to dig into that in a moment, but that's a really interesting point. So, in terms of ... You were Executive Director of strategic initiatives at UCLA. So, in your mind, from a strategic standpoint, how should advancement, and specifically alumni engagement/alumni relations integrate with the academic and administrative structures of a campus?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think the best thing you can do as an advancement in alumni engagement professional is help faculty and staff, and even graduating students feel like they are all involved in trying to connect alumni to the institution, and more often than not, in engaging with an individual alumnus, or alumni in an event, you will hear a story from them about a favorite professor, or student group they were involved in. Those connections run deep, and it is often the case at institutions, and on campuses that there's a bit of a friction, sort of a sandpaper grinding between faculty and advancement over ownership of alumni data. As I've often said to people who worked for me, I believe that alumni would be thoroughly embarrassed if they knew about the ridiculous conversations that we have about who owns them.

Mike K: Very interesting. So do you mind expanding on that?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it's important to remember that alumni are people, too, and that means that as they engage with us as a student, as a graduate student, or even coming back to higher education later in life, we are accompanying them on a journey of creating their own self identity. What that means is that each person experiences the school differently. So to your earlier point, alumni identity and feelings of connection are less about the success of athletic programs, or whether the school is or isn't in the news, or even rankings. The thing that matters most to the individual, is how much the school matters to them, and we have really no way of measuring that, and following that, and figuring out how to influence that when it comes to engagement and fundraising. Because at the end of the day, you are going to find that there are groups of alumni who really are proud of their education, but don't care about the institution in a way that would manifest itself in philanthropy. And I think that's an interesting nuance to explore, and really where I started my research.

Mike K: And is that because ... I think in your research, you used the term heart share. Is it because those people ... March of Dimes is competing for those dollars, St. Jude ... All these philanthropic elements are competing for the same dollars that the institution's competing for, or what is born of that, or I guess where does that come from?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Part of it starts with something that I want to say about our industry that is, a criticism delivered with love. Fundraisers in higher education, we have a built-in audience. That's how we think about our work. Each year, we're going to graduate more alumni, and more alumni after that, and so the opportunity to engage with our constituents is built into our business. Now this is very different from constituent to cause relationships that The March of Dimes, for example, is trying to build.

Dr. Jay Dillon: In some ways, here comes the criticism, that makes higher education fundraising a bit lazy. There's a lack of competition that does not afford us a lot of room for innovation. Yeah, I'm not competing to fundraise from alumni of another institution. I'm not trying to steal donors away from Stanford if I work at Berkeley, and vice versa, at least when it comes to the alumni band of philanthropy.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So it's an interesting thing when you sit down and you think about, the business plan of most advancement offices, is to really count on the future, and yet, I don't think we spend a lot of time looking forward to what that really means.

Mike K: Absolutely, and we're going to definitely get into that in a moment, and I'm very excited about that conversation. You mentioned sort of these paradigms, and one of the ones that we talk about here as a staff at Mongoose, is sort of this idea of, if you want advice, ask for money, if you want money, ask for advice. So, is that still true in terms of alumni engagement?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think so. One of the best email subject lines I ever used in a fundraising appeal was, "Your advice and a favor."

Mike K: Ooh, that's fantastic.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So, another tidbit and takeaway, best open rate I've ever seen, 23% open rate on that appeal. I think it is true, and that is part of the reason that my research on alumni identity has been so successful, because I'm really asking alumni to talk about themselves. I'm asking them to reveal to their alma mater how much of who they are they believe is related to their time in school.

Mike K: That's great. So speaking of your research, you produced a fantastic ebook called "Busting three-

Dr. Jay Dillon: Thank you.

Mike K: Oh, you're welcome. We read a lot of content here at Mongoose, and it's one of the few pieces of content that we've read that it's really kind of set ... To use a Jesuan term, set the office on fire. We were really motivated by it, we were all very excited, so it's "Busting Three Massive Myths in Higher Education Fundraising". So what was the inspiration, could you talk us through the process of your research?

Dr. Jay Dillon: When I started my doctoral research at the University of San Francisco, I was really interested in figuring out how we could do a better job of measuring alumni engagement, and then using those measures to accelerate philanthropy, and that process of research, it took a long time, as it should. One of the side stories to my dissertation, which is published, you can download it from my website, alumniidentity.com. One of the side stories from that research, was this idea that there a few myths that I uncovered about the way we engage in higher education fundraising. Those myths are that alumni that are older, alumni that live closer to campus, and alumni of particular class years, are more likely to donate than others.

Dr. Jay Dillon: This is something I felt really passionate about getting out and into the research community quickly, and that was the inspiration for the book. To help folks understand that these three characteristics on which we rely so much for annual fund segmentation, and alumni engagement programing, age, distance from campus, and class year, my research showed had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on an individual graduates feelings of connection to the school.

Mike K: Wow.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I know, and it's the side story, Mike.

Mike K: That's incredible. So speaking of segmentation and misconceptions around it, the other sort of pillar that you often hear of alumni engagement is the RFM Recency Frequency Monitoring Model. So, did your research sort of find that that's becoming obsolete?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, it's not that it's obsolete, Mike, RFM has been around now for some time, and it's a very successful strategy. The challenge with the Recency Frequency Monitoring Model is that you have to put in information about prior giving, and as we now, alumni giving has declined, not gradually, but exponentially over the last 20 years. In 1990, around 20% of university graduates were donating to their alma mater, and in the most recent figures, that number is somewhere around eight or nine percent. So the Recency Frequency Monitoring Model, that RFM approach, and other models, like velocity scoring, have an inherent challenge, because our data that we out into those models is so small, it's such a subset of alumni, and that's only getting smaller.

Mike K: Does RFM and these other models, do they neglect engagement in terms of board participation because they're only looking at dollars, and frequency of giving those dollars? Is that fair to say, or not necessarily?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it depends on the institution, and the reason I say that is because some schools are much better at collecting, and storing that information on alumni than others. When it comes to volunteering, or event attendance, whether or not a graduate is a fan of the institution on social media, or liking Facebook posts and things of that nature, not all schools are on the same level when it comes to capturing that information. So when you try and put it in a model that's based on prior giving, I've only found the results to be mixed.

Mike K: Interesting. One of the other paradigms we'll often hear, is that fundraising is such an art, and it sounds like your distilling towards a science, is that pretty fair to say?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well I'm not the only one, Mike, but I think if we look at the world around us, so much of our daily life is being driven by data. So for example, you mentioned my son born a year ago, we just got in the mail the other day, something from a catalog from a vendor who sells prepackaged first birthday parties.

Mike K: Oh wow.

Dr. Jay Dillon: For children. This is a vendor I'd never heard of. I don't know how they figured it out, but they knew that we were a month away from throwing a first birthday party. So you think about the way that data is being used by retail brands, consumer brands, and you start to wonder why can we not leverage that for fundraising as well. I think some of the things that we've talked about already shed some light in why that's challenge.

Dr. Jay Dillon: But when it comes to this art versus science question, heres what I have to say, as a Major Gift Officer, my wife spends a lot of time one on one with donors. And I think what she would say, is that everything that got her into that conversation, made her confident about the amount she's about to ask for, and for the cause that she's about to ask for the support, was driven by data. So everything that gets you in the room at that point of asking for a major gift, is driven by data. There is, of course, art to conversation and relationship building, but I think we could accelerate philanthropy if we allowed data to direct more of what rooms we should enter, and why. Does that makes sense?

Mike K: Totally, and I guess, in terms of and comparing it to brands and data, are there certain data points or areas that think institutions generally are missing, and you think they should consider more? You mentioned digital engagement, that certainly made sense, but are there any others you can think of as well?

Dr. Jay Dillon: There are several, Mike, and I think that's a big challenge to our industry as well, because for so long there have been so few CRM solutions for higher education advancement, and ultimately, these solutions were built first and foremost to hold data on former students. That's the best way I could put it. So these data bases on which we all rely, these legacy systems, were essentially built to accept the import form the registrars office at the point of graduation.

Mike K: Got it.

Dr. Jay Dillon: They really were not put together to function as a CRM, where we're having ongoing engagements with our alumni, dare I say it, our customers. So, with that in mind, there's a lot of room for improvement, and that's why I'm excited about solutions like Mongoose and others, that are trying to approach this a little bit differently. I could use an analogy from my days as a musician, as well. For those listeners who have a musical background, who ever learned how to read music, I don't think anybody in the 21st century today would create music notation the way it looks, it's just awful, but it is the way we read music and perform music, it's really hard. It doesn't make a lot of sense. There's not a lot of logic behind it, it just evolved over the centuries.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Advancement has done a bit of the same, it's approach to data has evolved slowly over the decades, and I think for those who are willing to hit a short reset, there's an opportunity here to take advantage of new CRM platforms that would really help, again, accelerate philanthropy.

Mike K: Fascinating.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Thanks for saying that, but what's your musical talent?

Mike K: Oh, minimal. I have a Epiphone Casino at home I dabble with. That's about it.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, I just thought I would ask with that analogy about music. Having studied music in school, it's really interesting to think about how, if today we were trying to teach everybody how to read music, we'd come up with a really different system.

Mike K: Would it be numeric in base, or how would that-

Dr. Jay Dillon: Absolutely. Absolutely. Music equals math.

Mike K: Right.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Full stop.

Mike K: Very cool. So, we mentioned it a little bit ago, but the idea of brands knowing their consumers, we talked about CRM's, which is fantastic. Is there a formula that schools can sort of create or have in place, to sort of identify when somebody is moving in the direction of a donation?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it's a lot simpler than most shops have made it out to be. By that I mean, there are a lot of different approaches to scoring alumni engagement and propensity to donate. I think what's interesting about the Alumni Identity Approach, is we're sourcing that information directly form the alumni themselves, and then modeling it across the entire database.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So we're not relying on things like, wealth screening, or RFM models, or other inputs, whether or not somebody receives a magazine for example. I know of one school that decided that all of it's alumni who received their magazine are engaged, because they mailed them the magazine. So that's silly right?

Mike K: Absolutely.

Dr. Jay Dillon: On the other hand, you have schools that try and assign points and weight to every event, every volunteer opportunity, and what they're really doing is getting great at predicting alumni who are already showing up. What I'm interested in, are those graduates who have never made a donation, or who haven't in a long time, people that just are not on our philanthropic radar, and that's what the Alumni Identity Approach offers, is a window into the alumni soul, if you will. What is it about our graduates that makes them feel connected to the institution.

Mike K: Absolutely. How do you mesh affinity versus that identity? I would imagine that affinity can help drive identity, but maybe not necessarily the other way around. Is that fair to say?

Dr. Jay Dillon: It is. Affinity, pride, and identity are not the same thing, and if I could invite you and your listeners just to think back to that Psychology 101 course that they took at some point in their life, they would have learned about, or at least read about Role Identity, which a very old and foundational social psychological concept, that you and I, and everyone, our identity is made up of the roles that we occupy, and those roles change over time. 12 months ago, I was not a dad, now that's one of my top roles.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So when we think about the way that alumni perceive themselves in relation to their school, using the lens of role identity is very powerful in that regard.

Mike K: So basically, alumnus, alumni, as a student, they sort of take on a particular role or persona on campus, and we in the alumni business tend to project that onto alumni when they are parents, when they are business people, that they've sort of outgrown that identity, is that sort of the general idea?

Dr. Jay Dillon: You're spot on, it silly, right Mike?

Mike K: Absolutely.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I mean, who at age 40, is who they were at age 20? Aspects of who you are, I think, can change, and as I mentioned before, identity is something that you create over your life time. So, no doubt, a part of that 20-year-old student exists in that 40-year-old alumnus. You know, by way of example, I was a music student at UCLA, and to this day, I still get a printed quarterly calendar of all of the music events on campus sent to San Francisco address, okay, we can do better than that.

Mike K: Absolutely.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Look at my LinkedIn profile, you can see what I'm doing now, I'm not a musician, although I love music and still care about it deeply, and look at where I live. I'm not going to be able to attend a concert on campus. I guess it's nice to know what going on, but I think I would benefit more if the school took an interest into who I was today, and not who I was at age 20.

Mike K: Got ya. So, if somebody gets hired to become everything new Director of Alumni at an institution, where would you recommend they sort of start then?

Dr. Jay Dillon: You've got to start in marketing and communications, and understand that the best tool you have at your disposal for reaching alumni, and for also influencing their feelings of connection for this school are things that you can build into strategies around communication. Whether that is social media, or direct communication through email, and snail mail, and peer to peer communication, and other things that, again, we see retail brands use and exercise on a daily basis. That is where we can start. More events are not the answer. More volunteer opportunities are not the answer. As I've often told my teams, what would we even do, if everyone we invited came to campus for this event? Where would they park?

Mike K: Right.

Dr. Jay Dillon: What would we even do if every alumnus volunteered to be a mentor? We don't have enough students to give them as mentees. So I don't think programs are the solution to the problem, again the problem being a decline in alumni participation in gifting.

Mike K: Got ya, so when higher education, whether it is admissions, or retention, or advancement, so many people tend to view the life-cycle as sort of a funnel approach, right, so you apply to an institution, you get accepted, you deposit, and that sort of thinking permeates the entire higher education experience for many institutions. So, is the engagement cycle, the timeline sort of different with your Alumni Identity Approach?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it puts the timeline in the hands of alumni themselves. What's important about understanding the alumni to alma mater connection, is that it happens on an alumnus's, or alumnus own time. There are several studies in the literature that point to an increase in engagement and giving among alumni who are parents of high school children, for example. So I might flip that and say, this is a point in time in which their alumni role, again identity, comes into play. When they're children are in high school, and they start thinking about, well where should my son or daughter apply for college? So that the timeline, the very well understood fundraising cycle, is in parallel to an engagement timeline. That's what I will say, engagement does not fit in that, what I'm imagining, circular spin of cultivation, and solicitation, and stewardship, and then identification, qualification, et cetera.

Dr. Jay Dillon: If we insert engagement as another function in that cycle, we neglect the fact that it occurs at all points.

Mike K: Perfect, and do you think alumni, and in particular, annual fund offices are starting to evolve in that direction, in that sort of thinking?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, what do you think, Mike?

Mike K: I hope so, but I'm skeptical in my hope sometimes.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it's hard. It's really hard if you are the director of an annual fund, a major gift officer, a prospect researcher, to look back at the data you have from the prior year, and years, and know that if you input X, you are going to get Y dollars in return. Its really hard to take a risk on that and say, instead of X, I'm going to try A, or B, or C, because so much of a college or university's budget now, is reliant of fundraising dollars, making a mistake has real consequences.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So I think it's hard, and I don't want to minimize that. I think that our profession is full of people who care deeply about students and education, and we're all just trying to figure out what works best. So I can say, in terms of hoping for the future, is that data science is becoming more and more prevalent on campuses, and as a advancement organizations look towards their own futures, hopefully som of those resources will be brought to bear. I like what I'm doing with Alumni Identity to help fundraisers understand how they can get to the right alumni, faster. So I'm hopeful about it too, but it's going to be a long road to go.

Mike K: Absolutely. How does an institution know if they have a good alumni community? How can they identify that? What do those alumni communities look like?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, I'd like to encourage folks, if they haven't already, to look the term social listening, and to read a little bit about what that means as strategy and a tactic for higher education. Instead of relying on your alumni board to give you the pulse of the entire alumni population, most of your graduates of any given institution, will be engaged in some sort of social media, and there are tools out there to help you listen to when your college or university is being mentioned in social media by your alumni, and I'd think you'd be surprised the mentions are far more positive than they are negative, and there is a lot nostalgia in what people post online, and that means they are remembering their schools.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Start doing this work in September, because that is when people start to think about their college. Its college football season, it also the time when their kids might be going back to school. There's something baked into that September time frame. So start doing some social listening, and that will give you some insight into what alumni are saying about the school, about their levels of affinity, and pride, and you can start to make some inferences based on what you hear.

Mike K: Now, talking about, you mentioned moments ago, about sort of this paradigm in the annual fund that, if you have a formula, X leads to Y, and there are these major concerns and tweaking with that formula, why would you tweak it. How can fundraisers, particularly on the annual funds side, mostly on the major donors side, how can they balance this long-term strategic intentional cultivation with the, I need this major gift, I need it yesterday, si I'm going to pursue that angle?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, engagement has a long horizon, and I think for many people that can be a nervous thing, and to your point, we need this gift, ewe needed it yesterday is the real life experience of many major gift officers, and Vice Presidents of Advancement and development. Heres what I'll say about that, risk is a part of our life, and higher education takes a lot of risks in other aspects of it's operations. I think there's probably no greater place for new ideas than in a classroom with those 20-somethings talking about the future. A lot of risks are being taken in how we ask students to think, but not so much in how we approach getting alumni and others to support the institution.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So I think for me, the main thing is to come back to this idea of cause, that non-profits, not in the higher education space are really paid more attention to, and we should, in education. Colleges and universities need to think of themselves as causes, and causes that not necessarily every graduate feels compelled, or inclined to support, and if we do that, we may start taking risks a little bit differently. By risks that help us elevate the conversation about why our cause is important, and when we do that, we will find that there are alumni out there who are ready to support the cause if higher education, and the cause if there alma mater more than and they are likely to respond to the message that they somehow owe their school for their success.

Dr. Jay Dillon: But taking a risk is a challenge, and I understand that, but it's a part if life, it's already happening on campuses, and there are ways for Advancement shops to do that without affecting the bottom line.

Mike K: So, speaking causes, there's all sort of giving days that institutions have, and a number of institutions sort of will layer these causes within those giving days, and is there a trap in tying a particular cause with knowing an alumnus or alumni's affinity as a student, or is that at least a good starting place for engagement.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think that's an open question Mike, it's a really good one. What will be the long term affect of giving days on engagement and major gift fundraising?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I was recently involved in back and forth on LinkedIn about this very topic, and there were a lot of different approaches to how giving days play into a fundraising strategy. I think what's important is to understand that a giving day can be a transaction for some alumni, and can be incredibly meaningful for others. So a giving day is an important in-road for new donors and to retain donors, and to put forward the particular cause of your institution. What I will say is that a giving day has to have a different case for support than a fundraising campaign.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Fundraising campaigns typically focus on three to five themes. One of them is always raising money for scholarships, whereas a giving day can really focus on any number of things, and you can allow alumni to even identify their own causes within the institution. So when I see this going as a successful way to identify new alumni, and what they care about, and if that information can be sussed out of these giving day programs, and coded in such a way that it could be used in the future, especially to identify alumni who are ideal alumni donors for certain parts of the campus, I think that's where the real power lies.

Mike K: That's great. Thank you. Those are ... There's so many individuals and I think internally here a Mongoose, we talk, and I sort of come from an approach where giving days in some ways can feel counterproductive because you're putting all these resources, all this time and energy on a pretty quick egg. It's kind of like a sugar rush, and at the same time, you're sort of neglecting, potentially, long term cultivation, but I think you articulated the best way to thread that needle, so thank you for that that was incredible insight. Thank you.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Sure.

Mike K: So, speaking of insights, you mentioned alumni identity. So, you left University of San Francisco, you started your own operation, and I guess, could you talk about that process and what sort of work you do with Alumni Identity?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well this is something that have been passionate about for a long time, back to the beginning of our conversation, talking about why alumni care, what's important in reaching out to them, and not having a real clear way of measuring alumni engagement, and then quantifying that so that it can be used to further philanthropic goals. So Alumni Identity comes from a place of deep personal interest for me, but also academic rigor, and as I mentioned, this was my doctoral dissertation.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I got this idea for Alumni Identity from a great friend of mine, Travis [McDearman 00:39:24] who did some initial work on this with some really insightful findings back in 2011 and 2013, and what he identified is that there are ways that we can ask alumni questions about themselves that had nothing to do with who they were, or who they might be, and from those questions, we can predict things about their support behaviors for the institution. So, what Alumni Identity does, is it helps institutions, colleges and universities, and even nonprofits, too, identify a ideal alumni donors by combining this social, psychological approach of role identity with data science to predict giving and volunteering.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So some of the services that we provide include things like Alumni Identity Assessments, strategies, annual fund segmentation, work with major gift portfolios and prospect management and even higher ed and nonprofit fundraising strategy as a whole, because what Alumni Identity does is, again, it gives you that alumni soul, and that is something that we certainly have not had in higher education, and if we had aspects of it, we had no way to quantify it. So that's what Alumni Identity is all about, and when I started this work as doctoral student, I never thought it would translate into my own consulting firm, but I'm really excited that it did, and I hope the passion which I talk about this work is coming through, because it's something I care about very, very much.

Mike K: Absolutely. If you didn't mind me asking about your research, can you with some accuracy, because you talked about roles being so hard to define, but can you use these questions in the state of science to project out, okay this 27 middle manager is going to evolve into this role in the near future, or how does that work?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, first and foremost, I think what Alumni Identity can do, is it can help an institution understand which alumni are just not going to return on any investment, so as one of my mentors in this business was fond of saying, part of our job is to learn how to lose, and lose early, and Alumni Identity scores help you do that because if someone is at a certain age, and does not have a particularly high level of identity for your institution, it's probably a lost cause.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So first and foremost, we can help you understand who you no longer need to mail to, try to engage, just let these alumni go, and be the people they are today. Beyond that, Alumni Identity scores, which come from the Alumni Identity Assessment, can help you identify who's lukewarm, warm, and hot when it comes to feeling connected to your institution, and can help you identify what factors and characteristics contribute to increasing that level of identity.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So for example in one study that we did, we found that getting a graduate to like the universities Facebook page, was equal in measure to getting to attend an event in terms of increasing their Alumni Identity, and that's a very powerful insight. Most colleges and universities, when it comes to advancement spend half of their budget on events-

Mike K: Yes.

Dr. Jay Dillon: ... and if one of the primary findings of my research, and takeaways from this conversation today could be this, that a digital engagement can be just as valuable, if not more valuable than an in-person event engagement, and this is a real paradigm shift for our industry. So Alumni Identity can help pinpoint that for institutions. Finally to your good question about modeling, Alumni Identity Scores, are far more efficient and effective at predicting future philanthropy than the RFM model, and this has been proven.

Dr. Jay Dillon: There's a case study on my website alumniidentity.com and if your a data geek or guru like me, you can get into it there, but it's really important to understand this, Alumni Identity is about who alumni are, today, and what that means in terms of their propensity to donate. It has nothing to do with who they were, or who they might be in the future, and when it come to philanthropy, that's a very powerful thing.

Mike K: Absolutely. Now you mentioned identifying alumni that you've lost and you'll never win over. How do you navigate that conversation with institutions? I think if you worked in higher education, or just any education, there's this desire to sort of save, or bring folks back into the fold. So I guess, how do you encourage institution say, nope don't worry about it, don't invest in them?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think it has a lot to do with the words that we use, and I may be bringing up here a contrarian view, and perhaps I am not communicating it as clearly as could, alumni are a very special group of people. They are people who have a shared experience, and at some level that experience inform who they are in their lives today.

Dr. Jay Dillon: What I mean by losing, and losing early, is figuring out for which group of alumni are pride and affinity perhaps present, but identity is not. I think that you can be very proud of your alma mater. You can have a deep affinity for the place, perhaps for the sports teams, but still not feel like the school is a part of who you are, and I think that's important to understand, and if you approach it that way, conversations internally, I think, become much more relaxed and less nuance. If we can simply say that we continue to care about all alumni, while in the same breath saying, but if some alumni don't care about us that much anymore, that's okay.

Mike K: Yeah that is, when you put it that way, it is sort of a bizarre affinity to have for a group that's just not going to return that attention, absolutely.

Dr. Jay Dillon: And part of it, too, is having worked on college campuses for the last 15 years, there was a joy to coming to work every day, and being around people who are young and vibrant, students who are really going to change the world, and it keeps you in this head space, I think, of optimism and progressive thought that just is a life sustaining force, and that is what I discover, and took me away from wanting to be a music teacher. Now that said, coming to campus every day, also can put you in this mindset that alumni think about their university, or college experience every day. Which of course is not the case, but it's a hard transition for some people.

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think what Alumni Identity can do, is help college and university fundraisers understand who their best fans are, and to recognize that some of those fans had never given before, some of those fans live in places that are far away from the campus, and close to the campus, some of those fans are old and young, they come from all different class years, and when you think about that, boy the opportunity sounds great, doesn't it Mike?

Mike K: Absolutely, so what are some of the current and upcoming projects you're working on with Alumni Identity right now?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, if I can step out of higher education for a moment, one of the most exciting things that we're working on now, is a corporate Alumni Identity model, and that is to recognize that the word alumni has now entered into the vernacular and a place where people talk about being alumni of Google. I'm a huge fan of shows on MTV, and celebrities are always listed of alumni of Road Rules or maybe alumni of Survivor, for example. So this word alumni simply means now, that you were previously associated with something.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So I'm very interested in understanding how a corporate Alumni Identity score could be used to help the private sector, especially technology, healthcare, the legal sector as well, understand who among their former employees are most likely to bring them new business in the future, or who among their former employees are most likely to come back as a boomerang hire.

Dr. Jay Dillon: So again, this is a bit outside of our conversation so far and talking about higher education, but that's fascinating to me. The idea that a corporate Alumni Identity Score could be used to help the private sector understand how to invest in connecting with former employees. So there's a nice analog there to higher education and how colleges and universities are really expert at engaging with alumni, I think there's a lot the private sector could learn from us, too.

Mike K: Can the same thing be said for recruiting new positions, or new employees, too?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I think so, and that's what a boomerang hire means, is that you're identifying that person who worked for you many years ago, who can bring, not only their experience with you, but their experience after working for you back in a more senior capacity, and imagine how we could reduce the cost of recruiting in employment if we could help employers understand who among their former employees feel most connected to the company.

Mike K: Got ya, but in terms of referrals for recruiting, that wouldn't be as powerful?

Dr. Jay Dillon: I'm not sure. Again, this is one of our current projects that I'm excited to report at a later date, you can have me back on a-

Mike K: Absolutely.

Dr. Jay Dillon: Maybe it would be a named podcast by then, Mike. But this is something that I'm very interested in, too. So in addition to the projects and assessment that we're running with colleges and universities, I'm also involved in a project now with one company to try and understand how a Corporate Alumni Identity Score could help them, again with business development and with Boomerang hires.

Mike K: Perfect, that's good. And speaking of our unnamed podcast, what would you call our podcast?

Dr. Jay Dillon: Well, Mike, we've talked about so much, the conversation has gone in so many interesting, and I hope helpful directions for your listeners, so what shall we call this podcast? How about this, Common Sense for the Already Informed.

Mike K: Oh, that is a fascinating idea. I am writing it down here. We have a list, I think we've distilled it down to like 20, but this will certainly ... I think this will make at least the first rounds of cuts, so that's good.

Dr. Jay Dillon: This has been a very enjoyable conversation for me, Mike, I think one of the things I enjoyed most about my work as a consultant, that perhaps I didn't have wile working on a campus, is the chance to engage with others who are asking thoughtful questions, and seeking out new insights into our work, and I thank you again for having me on, this has been great.

Mike K: Absolutely, and we're going to need to get you back on, I think, again, because I think we're just scratching the surface, but Jay, thank you so much for coming on. Thank you so much for your time,, we're all really appreciative of it thank you.

Dr. Jay Dillon: You're welcome Mike, take care.

Mike K: Have a good one.

Dr. Jay Dillon: And thank you so much for listening. If you have any questions or if Mongoose can help in any way, please feel free to email me, at Mike@mongooseresearch.com. We also have lots of free content at Mongooseresearch.com @mongoosehed on Twitter, and we.are.Mongoose on Facebook. Until next time, thank you.

Follow the Mongoose podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and Spotify.


Dr. Jay Dillon, Alumni IdentityDr. Jay Dillon

Founder of Alumni Identity


Mongoose Mike KochczynskiMike Kochczynski

Assistant Director of Client Success


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