Google “the iceberg illusion” and you will find a number of graphics illustrating the underpinnings of success. Almost all of them will show the tip of an iceberg labeled “success” or “what people see” and below the surface of the water is “what people don’t see” along with a number of virtues: persistence, sacrifice, discipline, hard work, etc. I have a picture of this idea by Sylvia Duckworth on my wall at work, and it serves as a powerful daily reminder of the need to cultivate those virtues in myself, one step at a time. As with the iceberg, the biggest part of success lies behind the scenes where few can see.

So it is with just about any successful endeavor. In my own field of alumni/development work, I have had to learn (sometimes the hard way) that the vast majority of what drives a successful program is often hidden from our constituents, but nonetheless critical to effective engagement. In recent years, I have identified five important, behind-the-scenes virtues that can make or break effective alumni engagement. Of course, these are not the only things that matter, but these five stand out to me as key:

  1. Dedication
  2. Planning
  3. Responsiveness
  4. Consistency
  5. Perseverance


One of my mentors used to continually impress upon me the need to have “fire in the belly” for this line of work. Alumni relations and development are always and everywhere about relationships—and relationships take time. This is not a line of work for those who need instant gratification. Relationships based on trust develop slowly, over long periods, and require significant investments of energy and dedication. Similarly, fundraising and major gift work can require years (sometimes even decades) of careful cultivation before achieving positive results.

Dedication in this field means always keeping one’s primary purpose at the forefront of one’s mind. Many people find it helpful to craft an “elevator pitch” for their own private use to remind them of why they do what they do. For example, I have a morning startup ritual that includes an “affirmation of purpose” statement that I read silently to myself just before starting work…

“I am here today
to help make college more affordable
for low-income families
through story-telling,
and alumni engagement.”

Intentionally recalling one’s purpose each day can be a powerful means of cultivating a sense of dedication, and it can also place the obstacles and frustrations that crop up from time to time in their proper context. Dedication doesn’t just happen, it has to be continually fostered on a daily basis.


Comprehensive advancement programs have a lot of moving parts: alumni relations, major gifts, planned gifts, campaigns, annual giving, marketing, messaging, social media, mailings, events, etc. There is a lot going on in a healthy development shop—and it all has to be coordinated. Alumni engagement and development are firing on all cylinders when the various pieces are all acting in concert with each other. Alumni events are planned far enough in advance to allow time for adequate marketing and promotion. Development officers plan their travel around the events, scheduling individual donor visits along the way. Mailings and communications are all timed to maximize the impact on all the other advancement functions.

None of this happens by accident. It is all the result of careful planning with extraordinary attention to detail. Good advancement teams understand this, and set aside adequate time for strategic planning each year. From the standpoint of alumni, a good advancement plan is a lot like good plumbing. If the job is done right, no one should notice. It’s only when done poorly that things get messy.


As important as good planning is, plans should not be chiseled in stone. Alumni and donors are real, flesh-and-blood people whose needs and motivations are continually evolving. The best advancement teams understand this, and are willing to adjust the plan as circumstances change. If, say, a group of alumni want to host an event not called for by the plan, a good staff will adjust accordingly. When alumni are that engaged, it’s a golden opportunity not to be missed.  If the data suggest that a different posting schedule would be more optimal for social media engagement—then by all means, modify the schedule. Responsiveness is not about being reactive. That is, mindlessly following every little trend that crops up. Rather, it is about a willingness to carefully revise elements of the plan as the needs of our constituents evolve over time.


Consistency communicates stability and professionalism to the alumni base. Have an alumni magazine? Make sure it is being published at regular intervals that people can plan on. The same goes for all other regular communications. The more engaged alumni become, the more they come to count on the consistency and regularity of your communications and other engagements.


As noted above, this line of work is entirely about relationships. One cannot simply pull a lever and get a major gift, or an active and engaged alumni base. One must recommit daily to those small, yet meaningful interactions that, over time, add up to big dividends. Remember that the Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years by the daily trickle of a single river. Believe in the power of incremental change, give your best daily, and your program will thrive.

Question: What hidden virtues do you believe are key to a successful alumni engagement program? Leave a reply below.

Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.

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