How UBC is building alumni engagement

BACK TO SCHOOL | Students walk UBC’s Main Mall during the first week of classes, September 2015

How B.C.’s largest post-secondary institution is connecting with its alumni–and how that translates to the bottom line

In September 2011, UBC launched Start an Evolution, calling it the most ambitious fundraising and alumni engagement campaign in Canadian history. The unique part was not so much the financial goal ($1.5 billion), but the engagement: it sought to double the number of grads making any connection to the university.

“The alumni association is almost as old as the university,” says Jeff Todd, UBC’s associate VP for alumni and the executive director of Alumni UBC. “But I think the level of attention and actual approach to how we’re going about alumni engagement has evolved significantly over the past decade.”

What exactly “engagement” means can widely vary. Alumni UBC, the brand name for the university’s alumni association, tracks every gesture a graduate makes, including updating an address, attending an event or writing a cheque. But when the organization set out to build more and better bonds with members of its family, it first conducted a survey to find out how alumni were engaging, and what exactly they wanted from UBC. The results were clear. They wanted support in professional development and personal growth; opportunities to build a sense of pride; and the chance to give back, through donations or volunteering.

Alumni UBC responded to those suggestions in various ways, including an online and in-person career development program; UBC Dialogues, a series of talks by UBC experts on complex social issues; a free A-card, which offers access to the UBC Library, as well as various entertainment and services discounts; Your Evolution, an online portal featuring alumni’s socially conscious projects; global travel experiences featuring a UBC expert; alumNIGHTS, a popular networking series; a TED-type talk series; and an alumni achievement awards program. UBC’s continuing studies department is also a partner in the alumni centre, offering courses in the classroom spaces. 

Four years later, the Start an Evolution campaign closed at $1.624 billion, exceeding its goal. The money was designated for facilities (including the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre—more on that on page 52), research, student aid, student aid endowment, academic endowment and programs. As individuals, alumni donated $341.6 million. (Corporations, other organizations, foundations and other individuals were the other groups of givers.)

The engagement goal was also exceeded. Every year the connections increased: from a starting point of less than 20,000 in 2011, more than 58,000 grads “engaged” with their alma mater in 2015, in ways that included subscribing to Trek magazine, volunteering as a science mentor or travelling to Japan with the Alumni UBC Travel Club. The payback for better alumni relations comes in all sorts of ways, according to Todd. “When the university has the support of alumni, it has advocates, it has mentors, it has volunteers and it has the support financially, which is critical,” he says. “A university has an obligation to seek ways to bring meaning to the lives of former students. I think a university should be committed to its students for life.” 

Santa saves the day

Santa OnoAlumni express all kinds of reservations when contacted by their alma mater to engage or give. A recurring one at UBC over the last year was concern over leadership in the wake of the Arvind Gupta controversy. Gupta abruptly left the presidency last August after just one year in the chair, and conflicting accounts blamed both Gupta’s leadership style and UBC’s corporate culture for the ill-fated reign. “We would periodically hear from alumni when things would appear in the media,” admits Jeff Todd, executive director of the UBC Alumni Association. “No doubt, alumni care very deeply about their university, as they should, so I take any concerns that were expressed as a really good sign.” Following Gupta’s departure, former president Martha Piper was brought in to right the ship while the board of governors searched for a new leader. In June of this year, respected University of Cincinnati president (and former Vancouver resident) Santa Ono was named to the post–assuaging concerns from a nervous donor base. “Martha Piper did a great job serving as interim president,” says Todd. “But now we have our new president, and we’re very excited to have him join the family.“–M.G.