Meaningful outreach for UMass
In recent weeks, the University of Massachusetts’ Alumni Association’s self esteem issue has resurfaced, but it will take more than a good-faith facelift to fix it.
Articles published by the Boston Globe and this newspaper have highlighted the association’s poor performance in attracting alumni to association membership. Currently, fewer than three percent of alumni pay dues to the group. This begs a simple question repeated to 215,000 alumni: Why don’t you like me?
A healthy membership empowers the University’s causes in state government and improves its image through the simple retelling of its members’ supposed success stories. When an association so closely associated with the University cannot retain addressable alumni at rates comparable to its peer institutions, UMass’ image is damaged, and its causes go unheard at a time when the University faces financial crisis amid shrinking support from the statehouse. Perhaps worst of all, a mere three percent of 215,000 can be relied upon to say this is a shame.
Of the students questioned by this newspaper, many sympathized with the association’s troubles. They said the University often felt impersonal – that it lacked something like a big-name athletics program to bring students together.
Executive Director Anna Symington added that low membership could be attributed to the University’s awkward geographic location, a weak economy and the confusion alumni encounter when they cannot understand the difference between paying their dues to the association and making donations to the University’s fundraising groups.
The points seem logical, so to make membership more attractive, Symington detailed ambitious plans. She spoke of dropping a $40 yearly membership fee, making lifetime memberships more accessible and automatically incorporating all alumni into the association.
This confusion cannot be eased by automatic membership and altruistic donations, however. It only further erases lines of differentiation between the University’s fundraising operations and the association, which is independently run. The two work together, but they are not the same.
Instead, the association must also look at how current students interact with one another. It might notice that they make their large, seemingly impersonal environments shrink to the personal and comfortable. Rather than separating the University’s population into students and alumni, the association needs to tap into its nostalgia and recognize the population consists of much more. Identifying and learning about how students currently enjoy the University will allow it to target their predecessors more effectively.
A former Greeno Sub Shop sandwich maker might be more likely to donate or pay dues if the association worked with its current students more closely and if a portion of their donation went directly to programs with which they were formerly associated. Former SGA presidents would be more likely to say “yes” to a networking dinner with others who have similar experiences. The association cannot afford to mishandle this restructuring. It has a great potential to improve the conditions of former and current students if it can look beyond branding and into bonding. Forget passing out key chains, lanyards and 8:00 a.m. pancake breakfasts.
Instead, ask what keys hang on those chains – if they are to club offices, RSOs or other groups. Eliminating dues may make the association membership cheap, but from there, it’s your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t become worthless.
Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s Editorial Board.