This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

In 2019, there was $431.43 billion in charitable giving – the second highest amount ever recorded (Giving USA, 2020). Included in this figure is the amount given to education, which increased by 10% between 2017-2019. One key audience for charitable giving to education is alumni. Before they transition to become external stakeholders, alumni publics represent a unique opportunity for internal communication scholars and practitioners.

Research on alumni relations has predominantly focused on donations and donor relationship building, but relationships with alumni cannot be a one-way street wherein giving is only expected of the alumni, not the educational institutions. A central question for educational organizations is: what can they do to drive alumni engagement? Relatedly, what constitutes alumni engagement? To answer these questions, Dr. Bey-Ling Sha and I conducted a mixed-method study to evaluate alumni of an academic unit in a large U.S. public university, including 30 interviews, a pilot online survey (N =130), and a final online survey (N = 513). Key insights from our study are presented herein.

Alumni Engagement Begins with Gratitude and Manifests in Multiple Ways
Our interviews suggested that alumni stayed engaged with the academic unit partly because of their gratitude. They were grateful for the career preparation and mentorship from their professors, before and after graduation. In other words, students’ educational experience and relationships with other community members (e.g., fellow students, professors, and staff) lay the foundation for post-graduation engagement with the university.

The survey findings showed that such engagement was materialized instrumentally, communicatively, and effectively. Alumni engaged as guest speakers, mentors, student intern supervisors, and event attendees (i.e., instrumental engagement), through sharing feedback to their alma mater (i.e., communicative engagement), and feeling interest, excitement, and enthusiasm (i.e., effective engagement).

Importance of Humanizing the Organization
An effective engagement strategy that universities and colleges can employ is conversational voice or human voice, based on our study. This means educational organizations can use a sense of humor, admit mistakes, and be responsive when communicating with alumni. Universities should be human and authentic. Show vulnerability. The same applies to internal communication with students before their college-to-life transitions. Research has already shown that authentic leadership and transparent communication nurture an engaged workforce, another type of internal public (Jiang & Shen, 2020).

Practical Implications
What does this mean for practitioners? To better engage alumni, organizations should first research and segment their alumni publics to determine the appropriate conversational voice. Educational institutions also need to begin to cultivate a campus culture of engagement that treats students as community members, not paying customers, enriching their learning experience. An institution that is human and authentic will likely develop lasting bonds with all of its community members, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Giving USA. (2020). Giving USA 2020: Charitable giving showed solid growth, climbing to $449.64 billion in 2019, one of the highest years for giving on record. Retrieved from

Jiang, H. & Shen, H. (2020). Toward a relational theory of employee engagement: Understanding authenticity, transparency, and employee behaviors. International Journal of Business Communication. doi:

Shen, H., & Sha, B.-L. (2020). Conceptualizing and operationalizing alumni engagement: When conversational voice matters more than openness and assurances of legitimacy. Public Relations Review, 46(5),

Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., APR, is a professor in public relations at the School of Journalism & Media Studies, San Diego State University. Follow Dr. Shen on Twitter: @profshen.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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