Recently Professor Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, reflected on his institution’s outstanding success in raising more than $500m thanks to the generosity of 20,000 donors the majority of whom were alumni. The money will be well spent: 24 new professorships, $150m in additional student scholarships and “significant new investment in cultural facilities and community engagement, with a particular focus on indigenous health”.

Professor Davis made it very clear that this great achievement was no happy accident. It centred on the proactive role of advancement – that office in a university charged with, among other things, fundraising and developing and managing relationships with the institution’s key constituents, especially alumni.

Professor Davis had this to say about advancement:

“[it is] a set of skills to be learned, mastered and applied. There are many people in the community keen to help students and researchers, but they expect competence when talking with institutions about possible donations. It is hard not to look with longing to the success of elite US universities in raising funds … Dollar figures in America may be eye-watering, but Australians are generous when the case if made with skill.”

We at HECG couldn’t agree more. The required skill-set is not just a facility to ask for money. It goes much further than that. It is about developing relationships with graduates that will result in direct financial revenues but also increased alumni social, academic, business, mentoring and life-skills contributions.

All these can be generated if a sophisticated and caring approach is taken to alumni relations.

Here’s how:

At a functional level, a primary objective is to develop a sophisticated and workable database – something more than a collection of names, contact details, year of graduation and degree type. For example, a series of “triggers” can be built in to automatically respond in a timely fashion to relevant significant events in a graduate’s career and life.

It is quite possible to estimate the time since graduation to career promotion, which then enables contact to be made concerning professional development. Suggestions can be made, for instance, on enhancing opportunities for career promotion through the graduate undertaking a Masters or MBA. Details of appropriate courses can be made available, perhaps even at a discount.

Information packages can be personalised and could focus, for example, on how best to prepare for a promotion, updates on latest management techniques, developing productive relations with colleagues, or how to deal with constant and changing inputs in a digital environment.

When the subject reaches retirement age (easily estimated through the database) suggestions can be made for further learning, perhaps for the graduate to pursue some long neglected passion such as Egyptology or Creative Writing. Further, if you are aware that the graduate has children (as you would in a well-maintained system) then they can instantly and in good time be made aware of study opportunities at your university.

If universities are aware that various alumni have a passion for, say, ancient history, they could be invited to be part of a “community of interest” that has grown around that subject, which involves people of all ages and backgrounds taking part in an engrossing learning experience.

Such “communities” can be a primary channel for student recruitment because members are so enthused they wish to pursue more formal study.

Many alumni possess great knowledge in particular subject areas, gained not just from study but also from working in specific areas, for example, business administration or advanced digital technologies.

They have that vital attribute – “practical wisdom” – and should be invited to share that with faculty advisory boards, on developing curricula, and serving to inspire students to reach their potential.

Many alumni have reached the apex of achievement in their chosen careers (for example, investment banking or medical science) and so the university should recognise this by inviting appropriately qualified individuals to serve in expert advisory roles on relevant university boards.

Again, they benefit through their involvement; the university benefits from their expertise. The graduate may have long since left the university, but they are still engaged and contributing to the institution’s success.

Everyone wins: alumni feel appreciated and valued; the university develops more attractive and valuable courses.

Alumni engagement must be systematic and measurable, with key indicators for success and failure. In this way, methods can be refined, engagement charted and results evaluated.

Such attention to detail is not about putting business models before people. It is about ensuring people are valued and wanted, that their efforts are not wasted, and that both they and the university – staff and students – benefit from their input.

For example, alumni in business and industry could be given priority access to high achieving students for internships and employment opportunities. Further, special scholarships could be awarded to deserving family members of alumni, who should always feel they have a fair advantage in their relationship with the university.

Feedback from alumni should also be given high value especially when directed towards areas in which they believe the university can improve its performance. Simply, if alumni feel they are part of dynamic and growing university they will be even more invested in its future success.

Universities can give back to their alumni by publically recognizing their achievements and successes, career or otherwise. This is turn creates a culture of success attractive to potential future students. Many colleges in the US have benefited enormously from this approach.

With such increased care and attention many alumni may even feel inclined to leave a significant bequest – the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.

To give back to an institution that has given much to you is rarely a burden.