by Jeff Small
I recently read a series of articles written by James McAlexander and Harold Koenig of the Oregon State University. The two of them, along with other co-authors, have done very interesting research on how the concept of “brand community identity” impacts giving to colleges and universities.
The idea of branding is fairly widely understood, but the idea of building brand communities is a bit newer and largely unexplored in the nonprofit world.
The basic concept of a brand community is that institutions can go beyond simply establishing a brand that identifies their product, and instead can build a culture in which consumers participate not simply as buyers, but as members of a community.
Think Apple computers, Harley Davidson Motorcycles, or even fans of the Twilight movies.
The consumers of these products go beyond simply buying and enjoying them, they identify with other buyers as peers and actually connect with them independently from the company.
For many in advancement, the day-to-day focus is almost entirely on the institution’s relationship with each donor, and not on the donor’s relationship to the broader university community – including other alums.
What McAlexander, Koening, and others have found is that cultivating donors may depend not only on your ability to tell the story of your institution, but in your institution’s ability to instill a sense in its graduates that they are a part of something special, not just because they possess a diploma, but because they are part of an active, connected, and like-minded community.
To paraphrase Bryan Miller, another researcher in this field, the key question is can advancement professionals move from thinking of themselves as “campaign managers” and start to perceive themselves as “community managers?”
This is clearly not an easy task. It requires high levels of coordination not only within the advancement office, but also a level of cooperation and understanding between alumni relations, communications, and advancement staff that is not always easily accomplished in the bureaucratic world of colleges and universities.
At JGA we know firsthand the difficulties of integrating and synchronizing these varied functions to better manage the diverse connections a student or alum has with their school. But, we have also seen the type of positive results that McAlexander and Koening predict when we’ve helped institutions begin to take a more holistic approach to creating and managing their “brand community.”
There isn’t one magic bullet to create these types of connections, but any effort to build this type of community of support should begin with a few key questions:
- What does it mean to be a graduate of your institution?
- How are your alums different than those that graduated somewhere else?
- How can you build connections between them based on this identity?
Once you’ve reached consensus on these key concepts, you can begin to leverage your institutional strengths to build a stronger brand community that the research and our experience suggest can fuel support for years to come.