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Building Community Initiative

It's all about affinity

Excited for CASE VIII Conference !!!!

February 7th, 2012

Museums, happy hour meet-and-greets, luncheons, waterfront Seattle… how could we not be excited for the 2012 CASE VIII Conference? All frivolities aside, the CASE VIII Conference, being held this year in Seattle February 15th-17th, is an event the BCI team has been looking forward to for quite some time.  This annual meeting of talented and interesting professionals provides a unique opportunity to bring together an important common interest: the improvement and support of educational institutions worldwide.

This year’s conference will also feature a unique blend of keynote speakers: Emmy Award winning and Beatles expert Bill Stainton,  Nate Miles (highly regarded pharmaceutical executive), and Andrew Shaindlin (administrator and alumni relations expert from Carnegie Mellon University).  The conference’s main presentations should provide three unique and inspiring perspectives on matters of importance to the advancement and support of educational institutions. We are extremely happy that alongside this stellar cast will be Oregon State University’s very own Mark Koenig and Aaron Escobar, who will be leading a breakout session on major gift discovery programs. As leaders of the advancement and development efforts for OSU’s Foundation, their expertise in alumni giving has been a tremendous asset to the BCI team.

Sadly, all of this excitement makes me green with envy, as I will not be able to attend the conference this year. Our BCI team will be well represented, however, as my colleagues Amanda Terhes and Dr. Hal Koenig will be there. They are really looking forward to meeting the many CASE VIII attendees and learning more about how BCI can give educational institutions a direct link into the minds and hearts of their alumni population! Our team had a great experience speaking at CASE in the past, helping professionals form, strengthen, and sustain relationships with alumni donors. Good luck to all who will attend CASE VIII, and please be sure to stop by the BCI booth.  We look forward to reconnecting with our friends and meeting new colleagues!

For those of you who are not familiar with CASE:

Since 1974, CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) has been striving to unite educational professionals in hopes of fostering ideals of advancement, development, and support for educational institutions worldwide. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. and regional offices in London, Singapore, and Mexico City, CASE is one of the largest international nonprofit organizations in terms of worldwide membership. In becoming a CASE member, organizations are given access to a multitude of resources to support the marketing, public relations, development, and alumni support of their organizations.

Building New Alumni Relationships and Renewing Old Ones

January 31st, 2012

Dear readers, it has been too long since my last post. It has been a busy time for me, and for BCI too. I am now on a six month sabbatical leave from OSU and serving as Visiting Professor of Marketing at the University of California Irvine. It is important to note that I am still actively engaged with the Close to the Customer Project and the Building Community Initiative (BCI). We have recently completed a BCI survey for a university in the North West and currently completing the preparatory BCI work for two large western Universities. We are delighted to be helping our colleagues better understand and strengthen their relevant communities of giving.

I have asked a graduate student that is working on the BCI Project to share his recent experiences in our shop. Here is Brandon:

A few days ago, I spoke with a development officer associated with a client university’s Foundation. This development professional is currently using the BCI analytics to aid him as he builds relationships with alumni. While he finds the BCI data to be valuable in his work, he finds that BCI is especially important to him when he is working with those alumni for whom he has little familiarity. He had many positive things to say about BCI and how it assists him on a day to day basis. One of the biggest factors that made BCI attractive to him was how the results are clear and easy to use. The scoring is simple, which helped the development officer get straight to the information he was most interested in. Speaking of simplicity, another thing the development officer brought up was how BCI had impressed the IT professionals at the Foundation. He said that the ease of implementation into their current database has made it very painless for the tech team to get their hands on it and put it to work.

We also discussed the fundamentals of fundraising, and how BCI helps him accomplish his goals. One of the most important aspects of fundraising, he said, is discovering the means of giving, the affinity, and the charitable intent of each individual alumnus. According to the development officer, the Foundation had all sorts of information on giving capacity and charitable intent, but affinity was always the most difficult piece of information to find. BCI filled that gap of knowledge. An essential aspect of affinity is perception of the organization in question. BCI helped this development officer to better understand alumni perceptions of these diverse markers of affinity and across a great number of alumni. He really appreciated the value of discovering these perceptions among alumni with whom he had no relationship. Perhaps more intriguing was that he found significant value in uncovering the perceptions among the alumni he does have a good relationship with. This, he said, helped him improve his connection with alumni with whom he already had good rapport. In addition, he said that the survey gave him a good chance to hear the honest thoughts of his alumni, which was always difficult to detect. Having this sort of information clearly made an impression on him, and allowed him to build new relationships, and renew old ones.

Learning about those Non-Respondents!

October 28th, 2011

We are just now wrapping up another BCI Project for a University Advancement client.    As always, there is a segment of alumni who do not participate: “the Non-Respondents.”   This is true of any survey, as the legal system frowns upon finding ways to compel people to participate.  Our team became curious about the alumni that chose not to complete the survey.  So we approached our client and shared with them our curiosity and our willingness to do a bit of unfunded follow-up work to see if we could learn anything about them.  My initial thoughts were that the non-respondents just didn’t “care enough” to take the time to do complete a short survey.  Fortunately, our client shared our curiosity, so we moved forward to create a short telephone study of the non-respondents for whom the Foundation had phone numbers.  We turned to our statistical and survey guru Hal to put together a randomly selected sample (looking for generalizability to the database as a whole) and to crunch the numbers.  So, development professionals, what do you think we learned?  Don’t move forward to the next paragraph until you give it a little bit of thought…

I suspect most of you have a sense for the problem: it is virtually impossible to keep databases current.  When we went to the phones, we discovered that nearly one-third of the phone numbers were no longer in service or were just inaccurate/bad (including business numbers and fax machines).   Of the valid phone numbers that we called, we were able to get 60% of those alumni to answer their phones (we made two call-backs to the numbers).  Our first interest in the call was to learn why the alumni did not participate in our survey.  90% of the people we spoke to claimed that they did not receive the email invitation.  When probed, we learned that the email addresses of these alumni in the database are not “active,” as they are not addresses that are monitored closely or at all.  Of those alumni that answered the phone about 32% were willing to complete our “short-form” BCI Survey.  Nearly 70% of those that answered were “not interested” in answering our survey questions, and a portion of those alumni conveyed to the interviewer that they were not happy with the university.   The responses of those that completed the phone survey mirror the results of the on-line respondents.

With respect to the question that motivated the follow-up phone survey, what did we learn?  The most compelling lesson has to do with the challenges of maintaining an up to date alumni database.    All benefit when we have alumni engaged in ways that bring them back to us.  Moreover, we want our alumni to be motivated to maintain connections to us.  To accomplish this, we must devise programs, content, and activities that provide a value to alumni that matters to them.  Wouldn’t it be splendid to have alumni reach to us?

A second lesson has to do with the Non-Respondents themselves.  It appears to us that the Non-Respondents should not be looked at as a uniform group, there are segments within this population.  For those that completed the phone survey, we find them to be very much like the mail survey respondent group.  These were generally happy alumni, who value a relationship with their alma mater.   Obviously it would be wrong to write this group off as either unhappy or apathetic.  For those that refused to participate, we find segments of alumni apathy and alumni unhappiness.   A portion of these alumni will never find joy in our alumni community.  There are, however, others that might be cultivated.  Of course, the challenge there is to gauge the degree to which these disconnected alumni should be a development priority.


What of the “Unhappy” Alumni?

August 29th, 2011

Recently, I was talking with one of my colleagues about a BCI client who was focusing attention on the alumni that had reported on the BCI Survey a strong dissatisfaction with the alma mater.  The client observed that it is worth noting that unhappy alumni that take the time to respond to the survey, “care enough to complain.”  In a very real way, these alumni are providing “voice,” and a voice that matters.  The BCI Survey reveals the points of disaffection and can offer guidance to advancement professionals as they might seek to repair difficult relationships.  So, a question for mulling today: Have any of you, dear readers, had success in repairing alumni relationships that have been strained in challenging ways?  If so, it would be interesting to learn about your experiences and outcomes.  I am particularly interested in knowing about the initial interactions with them….Any of you have stories you can tell?

Hope your summer is going well!


James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University

Scholarly Orientation and Affinity – The Data Are In!

August 16th, 2011

As it turns out, the “gathering of the data” to assess whether the alumni of the “research universities” are more or less integrated in their respective alumni communities wasn’t exactly a “walk in the park.” Thanks to the many hours of hard work coding data by our Swedish exchange student/intern, Emil, I can report the survey results…

As it turns out, there is not a statistically significant difference with respect to overall BCI score: graduates of research-focused universities are equally integrated into their alumni communities as are their peers from the more teaching-focused universities/colleges. The alumni of the Carnegie Doctoral/Research Universities do report, however, higher integration scores with respect to how they feel about the institutional brand and their fellow students (peers).

Hmm….perhaps a little bit of digging into the individual survey items might offer some insight into these different scores. I might hypothesize that the greater visibility of the research universities in the media might increase alumni affinity for the “institutional identity” compared to the attitudes of graduates of the more teaching-oriented institutions. The peer score is less easy to understand. Perhaps there are other correlated issues that influence the higher “peer affinity” scores, like Division I athletics and tailgate parties? What are your thoughts, Dear Reader?

James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University

Teaching, Research, and Alumni

July 7th, 2011

Today I am musing on the implications of the “scholarly orientation” of a university and if that orientation matters to students in ways that influence their affinity as they become alumni. This musing is sparked by a recent meeting with the Dean. At this meeting she asked a colleague and me if we would be willing to speak at the “Fall Faculty Meeting” on the continuing importance of “teaching” to our college and our culture. The College of Business has historically emphasized undergraduate and graduate (MBA) education, but in the last decade or so placed increased emphasis on scholarly research. It would seem as though the Dean is concerned that we maintain the cultural emphasis on teaching quality. The context of our university, is an important framing element, as OSU is a land, sea, space, and sun-grant institution (one of only two universities in the country with such designation) and has a research budget of $250 million. Clearly, research is a central part of the OSU Mission.

I need to share my bias: I don’t think scholarly research and quality teaching are incompatible. I do know, of course, that teaching assignments (number of courses, numbers of students, and number of teaching preparations) have a bearing on research productivity as teaching takes faculty time and “head space.” As a well-seasoned academic, I strongly believe that career vitality (tenure, mobility, intellectual stimulation, and salary) are driven by research, not teaching. So, research is important to me. But, I also understand that the taxpayers, employers, and legislators justifiably care deeply about the education we provide to our students. So, there is a bit of a conundrum at research –focused institutions, in that the academic career prioritizes research and the public prioritizes education. So back to my musings…

As a college student, I have experience at different universities, one that emphasized teaching and the other that emphasized research. They were both large institutions, with 20,000 or more students. The experiences were quite different. I enjoyed one much more than the other, and feel much more connected to the one that I enjoyed most. So, here’s my question:

Do Alumni from teaching-oriented universities feel a stronger or weaker affinity to their alma mater than do alumni from research-oriented universities?

I know that there are many other things that powerfully impact the student experience and alumni affinity. But if we hold all of those other things constant, does the “scholarly orientation” of the institution matter in this regard? I am pretty certain I have the data to test this question. But before I do that, I am curious: what do you think, Dear Reader?

James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University

BCI Research Wins Award

June 28th, 2011

BCI received a nice surprise last week! A recent paper on our research regarding alumni affinity and philanthropy (that pointed to differences in affinity between alumni of large and smaller colleges) was awarded the 2011 Alice L. Beeman Research Award in Communications and Marketing for Educational Advancement by CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education).

We are excited and honored by this award. Not just for the award itself, although awards are nice, but it is also exciting and satisfying to see that our work associated with advancement is being recognized and gaining acceptance.

The most important point of this recognition, for me, is that I am delighted to think that our work can help university advancement professionals engage alumni in more thoughtful ways to build mutually valuable relationships. As a professor and an alumnus of a couple of universities, I can appreciate how rewarding and beneficial these connections can be for both the alumni and the institutions of higher education. At the university, it is common for us to see alumni that look to their professors, advisors, or coaches for mentorship, recommendations, professional consultation, graduate studies, or even friendship. We see alumni that have “love affairs” with their respective alma maters, just smiling ear to ear while they show off their branded sweatshirts emblazoned with OSU or UCLA or anywhere U (as on a cool day on the cusp of July, I sit in my office wearing a University of Utah sweatshirt). These relationships do not end at graduation day. A campus tour will exhibit some of the benefits associated with these relationships that accrue to the institution: named colleges or buildings, sponsored benches or classrooms, professorial endowments, and even stadiums (with a quick and personal thank you to the late Al Reser, his family, and Reser’s Fine Foods and the Austin family for their graciousness and generosity to OSU and the College of Business). In short, higher education is delivered to and by community. All of us are in this together.

To give you an idea of the things we’re working on, here is a link to the article. The paper provides empirical results that suggest the importance of identifying and understanding unique qualities of individual institutions that can have consequence for alumni affinity and the design of successful advancement programs. We would love to hear your views on our findings. I would be especially interested in learning more about what additional research associated with affinity that you would find interesting. What do you think, “Dear Readers?

The paper can be found here.

About CASE, from www.case.org

“Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with offices in London and Singapore, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education is the professional organization for advancement professionals at all levels who work in alumni relations, communications, fundraising, marketing and other areas.”

Today, CASE’s membership includes more than 3,400 colleges, universities, independent elementary and secondary schools, and educational associates in 68 countries around the world. This makes CASE one of the largest nonprofit education associations in terms of institutional membership. It serves more than 60,000 advancement professionals on the staffs of its member institutions.”

Powered by…Identity

June 8th, 2011

In March of 2009 Oregon State University launched an integrated marketing communication plan for which the central message was “Powered by Orange.” The primary objective of the campaign was to build greater off-campus visibility for OSU within the State of Oregon, especially within the urban centers. OSU has a culture of humility and that has been reflected in relatively modest investments in institutional marketing. I have to give “props” to Luanne Lawrence (our former VP for University Advancement), Melody Oldfield (Director of Marketing) and their colleagues for championing this effort. As a faculty member at OSU for more than 20 years, I can say, with confidence, that “PBO” was OSU’s most ambitious communication campaign ever.

The PBO campaign is largely focused on leveraging social media to engage the broad community of OSU’s alumni, students, faculty, staff, friends and fans. The relative success of PBO could be seen in the display of the PBO emblems (essentially orange circles) in personal attire among alumni and friends, in the windows of downtown Portland office buildings, and on automobile bumpers and windows. Success was also noted by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) awarding the campaign its highest honor, the “Circle of Excellence” Grand Gold Award, which is just one of the many awards the campaign received. The student newspaper published an editorial lauding the program, including these comments:

“The Powered by Orange campaign has revolutionized the way universities across the nation and the world have utilized social media to involve students, fans and alumni to create a virtual community where individuals with a wide range of affiliations can come together.

The fact that our rural university is at the forefront of the innovative use of new media is a pleasant surprise, to say the least. The campaign has caught the attention of several online sites and bloggers who are impressed by PBO’s visionary use of unconventional campaign tactics”

Clearly, this campaign demonstrates the application of basic lessons that come from understanding the application of Brand Community to higher education. I could go with further examples, but will, instead, refer you to the PBO website: http://poweredbyorange.com/

On that web site (or directly on YouTube) you can also see an impressive and creative campaign video created by one of our outstanding marketing students, Darryl Lai. We do have some amazing students in our program!

Well, success is relative. During the last year, I have “enjoyed” serving on the diverse committees that faculty “treasure” and have heard much criticism of the campaign. This criticism sometimes comes from faculty and, other times, from university administrators. Essentially, these colleagues don’t get the point of the campaign or appreciate its message. Academicians seem much more comfortable about telling our story in a fashion that would make Joe Friday of Dragnet very comfortable, as in “just the facts.”

So, I am curious, would a campaign like Powered by Orange, be possible at other universities? Would other university communities be more accepting of an identity campaign that doesn’t convey “just the facts?” What experiences do you, “dear readers,” have with working to build your brand, or “institutional identity?”

Welcome to our new BCI blog subscribers!
James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University

The News, Ohio State, and Alumni Affinity

May 31st, 2011

Greetings! Today’s blog is a contribution of Tony Grech, a very talented OSU MBA student who works with us on the BCI Project. Tony has been spending some time thinking about the way in which alumni communities and advancement professionals can be impacted by different types of “turbulence” in our environment. So, here’s his latest, I hope you find it thought-provoking:

Brand Equity is broad…very broad…

For years, Ohio State University football fans viewed Coach Jim Tressel’s sweater-vest as a marker of virtue. “The Vest,” as fans call it, had become an iconic symbol to the loyal community of Buckeye gridiron fans. Recently the NCAA has charged Tressel with “potential major violations” associated with Buckeye players receiving improper benefits from a tattoo parlor. In the face of pending NCAA formal proceedings, he has just resigned his position at Ohio State.

The Buckeye nation seems polarized on the proper way to respond to this “scandal.” Some vocal fans and sportswriters were calling for his job. Some, like former quarterback Terell Pryor, were rallying around the embattled coach and offered strong public support. Oh yeah…while this tumult was taking place, Ohio State University’s astronomers discovered a new supernova named Eta Carinae. These competing contrasting stories provide an excellent illustration of just how diverse the factors are that can influence a university’s community.

The research on brand community indicates that strong emotional reactions, either positive or negative, can be visible demonstrations of affinity. Affinity, in a broad sense, is the unifying glue of brand community. Among research-oriented community members, the discovery of the supernova will be a tremendous point of accomplishment and serve to bolster institutional identity and equity. Among Buckeye season ticket-holders, the “The Vest’s” fall from grace will be a disappointment. In both cases, we would expect that alumni who are actively integrated in their respective communities will maintain their attachment to the alma mater. For committed members, community is resilient.

As Tony’s commentary suggests, the efforts of advancement professionals are framed by the diverse events and activities that swirl around any university environment. I think there are a number of provocative issues associated with these tandem newsworthy events at Ohio State. I think it would be interesting to have a conversation around a couple of questions. I invite you, “Dear Reader,” to enter the fray:

1. As an advancement professional (to include development, alumni, and marketing), what would be your professional response, if any, to these events?

2. Clearly there are interesting “segmentation” opportunities to consider when evaluating an appropriate response to these kinds of tandem events. As our interest as advancement professionals is in alumni, how would you think about different alumni segments as they relate to these complex communication situations? Would you tailor messages to alumni segments, or address the broad community with uniform messages?

3. If you were a graduate of Ohio State how would you feel about these events?

4. How resilient is affinity among alumni members?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. I have some of my own but, for now, will keep them to myself.

Thanks for “popping in!”

James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University

BCI Affinity – The Dynamic Advantage continued…

May 17th, 2011

The BCI Affinity score is grounded in research conducted among consumers who are delighted to be immersed in a community of fellow experienced and loyal owners.  These loyal community members of brands Jeep and Harley-Davidson share experiences and friendships that build compelling commitment to the brand and its community of owners.  The lessons that we have learned from studying these loyal consumers easily transfer to the context of philanthropic giving within higher education.  The BCI Affinity Score reflects the synergistic impact of four distinct relationships that form as an individual experiences higher education: the education itself, the institutional identity (what we marketers like to call the “brand”), the institution and its representatives (both interpersonal and mediated), and with their student and alumni peers.

          The Education. A satisfied alumnus will look back on their years at the alma mater with fond memories, knowing that their investment of time, energy, and money was worthwhile. For some, this value is reflected in career placement and success.  For others, it is awareness of personal growth and accomplishment.  An alumnus that highly values this education will believe in the culture and processes of their alma mater. When they believe in it, we find that these satisfied alumni demonstrate a propensity to advance the alma mater through donations, personal recommendations, and other supportive attitudes and behaviors.

The Institution’s Identity. Gauging the degree to which an alumnus has internalized or values your institution’s identity is an important indicator of propensity to donate.   We can often see alumni wearing branded apparel, displaying license frames and decals on their cars, or, quite literally, flying the alma mater’s flag at their front porch.  A strong institutional identity is one that resonates collectively and individually with your alumni and our research indicates has a direct correlation to  philanthropic giving.

Interactions with the Institution. There are few real truths in life.  For college graduates a pervasive truth is that the alumni can leave the university, but the university will never leave the alumni alone. For some, institutional communications to alumni are nothing better than spam.  This is problematic for the institution in an obvious way, as the spam may never be consumed. Less obvious, is that these mediated communications may be the only interaction that an alumnus may have with the institution after graduation.  We find that alumni who enjoy a positive relationship with the institution (interpersonally and/or in mediated environments) are more likely to give than are those that feel dissatisfied.  This simple finding demonstrates the importance of conveying our institutional relationships with alumni in ways that the alumni value and appreciate. To do so, necessitates providing our alumni a “voice,” and being willing to respond to their feedback.

Relationships with Peers. A vital brand community is one that has constituents that enjoy their interactions with one another and look forward to future opportunities to connect. When communities of alumni find common inspiration in their alma mater the result is a lifestyle of synergy with your institution’s brand as a central theme. Cultivating information about your prospect’s relationships with their peers is an important indicator of the social efficacy of your institution’s brand as well as giving.

The collective impact of strength in these diverse relationships is a kind of affinity that has a compelling relationship with giving.  In our scholarly research we note committed owners of brands like Harley-Davidson and Jeep that proudly display the brand as a tattoo on their bodies.  As we have worked with advancement, we have also found alumni that display tattoos of university mascots and logos. Our published research offers demonstrations of the impact of our Brand Community instrument as a diagnostic device to measure the vitality of an institution’s community of giving with results that can be used to prioritize advancement investments for more effective and efficient allocation.  We encourage our peer institutions to ground their understanding and building of affinity by attending to these unique but interconnected relationships.

For those advancement professionals who feel they can benefit from applying the BCI survey tool, but lack the time or resources to complete the assessment themselves, our BCI initiative provides a service that can deliver this valuable affinity data.  The BCI initiative is delivered for a modest fee by the Close to the Customer Project at Oregon State University for the benefit of our peers and to foster healthy alumni communities.  We would be delighted to discuss our ideas and the services that we provide, so we welcome your questions and comments.

Measuring a construct with such dynamic qualities requires a tool equally suited to the task. BCI is the tool that will help you take a fresh look at your prospects because BCI is all about affinity.

James McAlexander, Ph.D.
Dean’s Professor of Excellence
College of Business
Oregon State University