Activating Alumni as Donors: Four New Solutions to an Age-Old Challenge
The importance of alumni engaging in philanthropy in higher education is critical to elevating a college or university’s reputation and raising funds that allow the institution to adapt to the ever-changing education landscape. All colleges and universities face the ongoing challenge of activating alumni as donors and increasing the engagement of those that already give. With the rise of social media and other new technologies, we’ve identified four creative ways for higher education advancement departments to think about alumni giving and increase pride in their institution.Start Early! Student-Led Crowdfunding Challenge
1. Start Early! Student-Led Crowdfunding Challenge: Creating a philanthropic mindset while students are still on campus will make them far more likely to be loyal and consistent alumni donors. Students today are better equipped than ever before for successful peer-to-peer fundraising efforts. Through a student-led crowdfunding challenge, students can develop an understanding of the power of philanthropy and learn to speak about the personal impact of the school’s affinity programs that they participate in.
Obtaining a major-donor match for the student organization (athletic teams, co and extra-curricular clubs, Greek organizations, etc.) that raises the most money in a crowdfunding challenge is a way to augment revenues. This match could come from an alumnus who is actively involved and has affinity toward these extra-curricular student activities. Donors will be excited to hear directly from students about why they are eager to support their alma mater. Seeing students take action via social media to support and grow these programs will inspire others to support the school and its mission.
2. Days of Giving: A dedicated day of giving is a way to attract donors, promote organizational pride and raise philanthropic dollars. When considering a day of giving, colleges and universities should pick a day that is meaningful to their organization (for example, the anniversary of the institution’s founding). We are often asked if colleges and universities should use Giving Tuesday for this purpose. We have found that donors often get lost in the social media “white noise” of Giving Tuesday, and that a dedicated day of giving, celebrated uniquely by an institution, is a more effective strategy for engaging alumni.
A day of giving is effectively a mini-campaign. Aligning leadership giving, matching gifts, and full cross-departmental support is critical to success. Advancement teams should aim to create an environment where, for one day, all areas of the institution come together to inspire alumni to give and be recognized as valued investors in an organization’s mission. A day of giving can provide alumni with opportunities to contribute to their favorite athletic team or co-curricular club and even inspire them to recruit peers to join the fun. Online tools such as givegab.com can help develop specialized websites for days of giving, and then promote them via social media and provide execution support.
3. Affinity Groups: A new generation of highly mobile alumni who have made a significant financial investment in their education presents new challenges for higher education fundraisers. For example, many young alums may still be paying off loans from their time as a student. To overcome this challenge, we recommend focusing on the benefits students receive from being engaged with an institution beyond graduation through networking opportunities, mentorship and affinity groups.
For alumni affinity groups, institutions should consider the demographics and geographies of their alumni population, as well as trending social movements. Your institution’s brand and identity are also important. Affinity groups can be formed in many ways. They could be degree based or geared toward younger alumni or an extra-curricular activity. Undergraduates can activate these groups through networking events and specialized communications. Allowing alumni contributions (in whole or in part) to fund these undergraduate programs and activities and communicating the highlights of them will build alumni affinity and allow alumni to see the institutional change their dollars are supporting.
4. Events with a Purpose: Events need to be tailored to alumni with a range of goals and capacities. Younger alums will likely use the opportunity to connect with their friends and may not have the capacity to give at significant levels. Major donors may be seeking to deepen their passion and commitment. Then there are those in between younger alums and major donors whom advancement teams spend much of their time cultivating.
Generally, more recent alumni are the lowest hanging fruit, and their preferences are likely to prevail in alumni event planning. Events are often planned in a popular (i.e. noisy) restaurant or at a sporting event where cultivation is challenging. These types of events can play a role on the continuum of alumni engagement, but they should be a small part of an overall strategy that elevates donors up a pyramid and deepens their affinity for the institution.
It is important for alumni gatherings to include some messaging from the school about its overall vision and how it is adapting to an ever-changing landscape in higher education. This messaging should include an explanation as to why alumni support is critical to educating future generations. An institution needs to clearly articulate how alumni are central to making that vision a reality, either through volunteer service, engaging with new students or through philanthropy. This message can be delivered by an alumni engagement professional. Better still, an appearance and address by the university president or a college dean will drive attendance and help increase engagement with high net worth donors.
Attracting alumni as donors can be one of the most perplexing parts of the advancement function. By adopting the four ideas outlined above, higher education institutions can encourage a culture of philanthropy among students, provide many avenues for alumni to make contributions and keep the vision for a vibrant institution in front of alumni throughout their lives.