How Crowdfunding can Reignite Alumni Engagement

A friendly forewarning: this is a long article. Please accept a summarized, and downloadable, presentation embedded at the end as my apology :-). Also, if you’re involved, or interested in, the coupling of crowdfunding with higher education, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Imagine. Empowering each and every one of Ohio State University’s 63,000+ students—regardless degree, age, or background—to start, and fund, a business. Visiting its University’s crowdfunding ecosystem, ignite.osu.edu, students would find a centralized source of information, mentorship, and even a clear path to funding their ideas and ambitions. The platform wouldn’t guarantee success, of course—but it would guarantee, and deliver, opportunity.

Empowering students to ignite their entrepreneurial ambitions, anytime, anywhere, was the topic of the first part of this University series (Why Universities Need to Get Smart on Crowdfunding). But students aren’t the only stakeholders who would benefit from an integrated crowdfunding platform; it would also deliver significant value to Alumni, providing them the opportunity to meaningfully engage with the innovation taking place at their University.

Let’s loosely define innovation in this context as (i) student, faculty and alumni startups and (ii) research and development.

Ask your fellow Alumni, “What innovation is taking place at our University? You know, student entrepreneurs, startups created, or exciting research and development in commercialization?”  and you’re likely to be met with blank faces. (Stanford et al. strictly being the exception.) I asked my own classmates; not a single one had a clue. Not only did they not know, they had no idea where they would go to find out. Call the business school maybe?

An Informational Problem

This is a serious problem. The overwhelming majority of alumni at most Universities are entirely unaware of the innovation taking place at their alma mater. Why is this?

Quite simply: no one is broadcasting the information to them, and it’s difficult, darn near impossible, to find.  Let’s run through a quick example: you’re an Alumni wanting to support entrepreneurial students at your school. Whether a tech startup, or an artist interested in selling his/her work online, you’re not motivated by getting rich. You’d simply like to give back.

Now try this thought experiment: “What steps would I take to achieve this, to discover and connect with these entrepreneurial students?”

Lots of steps, right? Call the business school; talk to three people until you find the right person; get transferred to the head of the entrepreneurship program, who invites you to a pitch day—in 8 weeks; and after all of this, you’ve still only gained access to maybe 3% of students on campus. You most certainly missed the art student.

The relevant and actionable information you need is highly fragmented, siloed across myriad individuals, departments, and programs. It doesn’t work. And this is why Alumni engagement is de minimis; you can’t expect them to engage with something they can’t easily find in the first place.

The Solution

But there is a solution! This informational problem can be attacked and defeated by a smartly designed platform. First: centralize all relevant and actionable information on a single platform (e.g. ignite.osu.edu). This includes (i) online resources; (ii) offline events (online-to-offline is key); (iii) student, alumni and faculty startups; and (iv) R&D projects, particularly those preparing for commercialization. Second: make it ubiquitous, and seamlessly accessible. . The network architecture would look something like this:

Crowdfunding for Universities

The I stands for information. And notice how its flow is bidirectional, representing how each user can both consume and produce it. For example, a student consumes educational resources which then leads leads to producing a new startup, that is then consumed by an Alumni anxious to mentor.

Today’s path to discovering your University’s innovation is befuddling, often to a point of self-defeat. This platform, a single destination, available 24/7, illuminates the path. Discovering, and getting involved, becomes as easy as sending a message on LinkedIn.

Mentor an aspiring student? Fund a student, or professor’s, startup? Invest in a R&D project preparing for commercialization? (d) Simply stay informed and engaged with all the cool things happening? Check, check, check, and check. Easy and seamless :-)

The Impact

The technology isn’t sophisticated, a re-segmented social network really, so building the platform wouldn’t be difficult. The key assumption: will it be used? If Alumni can easily discover the information, will they act on it?

I’m biased, of course, but my belief is absolutely. For one, I know I would. Moreover, my belief is supported by a near axiomatic observation: alumni intrinsically want to support their University. It’s part of one’s identity, and many leap at the opportunity to express it.  (You can go to any gym, sweaty memorabilia galore, to see this first-hand.)

And just look at college sports…

Rabid, maniacal, insane, just a few adjectives one can use to describe a college sports fan. Evidence of just how engaged Alumni can be. What is foundational difference between college sports and college “innovation”? The availability of information. It’s easy for me to engage with sports because it’s broadcasted everywhere. Local TV, ESPN, radio shows, you name it, the informational problem is solved. The same can’t be said for innovation.

I’m not implying we’ll ever reach a comparable level of engagement around startups or R&D—or on second thought, as technology eats the world, and wearable computers goes Vogue, maybe we will ;-)—but we don’t need to. We only need to chip away the informational problem, bit by bit, broadening awareness each time, to realize enormous impact. Here’s how.

The ultimate goal is getting more Alumni involved with innovation. But before they get involved they have to be engaged. And before they’re engaged, they have to be informed. This is the problem hierarchy—informed, engaged, involved— with information being they very foundation.

Let’s use Ohio University this time as an example. It has 200,000+ living Alumni. Today, how many are aware of OU innovation? Hypothetically, let’s say .05%, 1000 alumni, are actively aware. By the end the funnel, maybe 125 are actively involved.

If you make information frictionlessly accesible, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to aim for growing this awareness to 5% in three years. The impact of doing so? As you can see, ceteris paribus, all else equal, this would dramatically increase the number of Alumni who become actively involved. From 125 to 1,250.  Here’s the visualization:

Crowdfunding Universities

Involving 10x more Alumni —not to mention the many, many more engaged for the first time— would create tremendous value for the ecosystem. Students could more easily find mentors, or employers; faculty working on research could meaningfully collaborate with Alumni in the private sector; so on and so forth.

But that’s not all.

Solving the informational problem creates profound value in and of itself. As seen above. But there’s more. In fact, the informational value of the platform is only the tip of the iceberg.

University Equity Crowdfunding

Once the network is built, with users onboarded and participating—which, to be sure, will require time, significant effort, and a deep commitment from leaders within the University— users will not just interact with the information, i.e. discovering and attending a relevant event. They will also interact with each other. Alumni connecting with Alumni, Students discovering and connecting with Faculty research, and so on.

Herein lies the exponential power of our University crowdfunding network. The interactional value it creates—the sum of spontaneous and serendipitous interactions between stakeholders—would not only exceed direct efforts by the University, it would become its own self-evolving system. An employee wouldn’t have to manually connect alumni X to student Y; it would happen organically through the network, often in a way that would be entirely unpredictable. (Parenthetically: discovery leading to meaningful interaction… this is technology, and the power of the internet, at its best!)

Here’s a look at the platform architecture again, this time with the interactional value layered on. It’s imperfect, as interaction would not happen symmetrically as conveyed, but you get the idea. And it was the easiest diagram to make ;-).

Alumni Crowdinvesting

I reiterate that making this work would not be overnight project. But I can assure you—having built my first online community in high school—it can most certainly be done. And the results—as a community reaches critical mass, takes control, and becomes its own center of value creation —are magical.

Conclusion: Alumni Engagement Needs Re-Imagined

The new age of Alumni aren’t going to be motivated by blank initiatives, or quarterly donation request. They want to support things they care about. And identify with. Such as compelling and enthralling research, or students who they believe in and want to support. A crowdfunding platform can provide these engagement opportunities. Seamlessly.

Spending millions on engaging students and alumni around athletics, Universities can, and should, do the exact same for innovation. Just imagine capturing a modicum of the rabid, maniacal, and insane culture that exists around athletics, and bringing it to pioneering individuals and initiatives. Let’s not just imagine. Let’s build it. As I’ve presented above, it can most certainly be done.

Provide us the opportunity to support our University’s entrepreneurs and research—and you bet we will.

About Jonathan Sandlund

Founder, TheCrowdCafe

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