It Can Be Done: Harvard Quantifies Alumni Social and Global Impact

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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Every college and university (program, department, school, etc.) is increasingly being called on to demonstrate the success of their graduates. The first hurdle is gathering success data about achievements in careers and in life—daunting in and of itself.

A second hurdle, even more formidable, is demonstrating (quantifying) how collectively an institution’s alumni are making a mark on the world socially and economically.

Through innovative data-collection techniques, Harvard has figured out a way to gather and measure both (the individual feeds into the collective) in a “tangible, rigorous, and repeatable way.” How did they do it? Here are a few study highlights to give you an idea.

Tight measures for economic impact-entrepreneurial focus of living Harvard alums

  • “The aggregated annual revenues (or assets under management) and employees of currently-operating profit and non-profit ventures founded in full or part by one or more living Harvard alumni.”

Social impact measures-board service, alumni volunteering, and non-profit entrepreneurial activities

  • They wanted as much methodological rigor as possible—essentially a sufficient response rate while minimizing response bias. Using incentives and “urgent” pleas for participation could increase bias, as different types of individuals respond differently to those tools.
  • So, they had to rely on increasing awareness among alumni and make the survey as easy as possible to complete.

LinkedIn to the rescue!

  • Arguably the location of the most updated/up-to-date contact information.
  • Truly global network with huge membership numbers (414 million members).
  • Advertisements on LinkedIn encouraged Harvard alumni to update their alumni information and participate in the study.
  • LinkedIn also provided special permission to develop a custom API that allowed respondents to log into their LinkedIn accounts and automatically populate the relevant portions of the Harvard Impact Study—respondents could easily check and uncheck boxes, edit lines of data, and add new careers and educational accomplishments.

If you’re a research geek, there is additional information in the article about how the researchers addressed outliers as well as how they extracted random samples and compared that data to what was collected.

Obviously, this is a huge undertaking by an exceptional institution. A lesson for all, though, is the ability to tap into LinkedIn to gather even basic information about alumni and their successes. That’s doable at any level you choose—select alumni, a group of alumni, etc., to showcase their individual and collective impact as well.

The resulting data from this study—presented in an informative and engaging manner—can be found at

The full case study is in the May 2016 issue of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review.

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