The Importance Of Aligning What Alumni Value With Your Outreach Programs

With philanthropy reaching $46.7 Billion last year, a 7.2% increase from the previous year and 67.8% higher than the 2009 trough of the Great Recession (CASE), one might expect a feeling of financial optimism would reign within the offices of college and university presidents. Behind these positive figures, however, are five inconvenient truths that may dampen their optimism about the future:

  1. Alumni participation rates continue to fall, suggesting a decline in engagement and loyalty
  2. 28% of funds raised last year went to only 20 elite universities (representing less than 2% of the student universe), leaving many of the remaining 4,500+ with crumbs
  3. The Great Baby Boomer Wealth Transfer is underway, and according to Cerulli, $68 trillion will change hands over the next 25 years, most going to younger generations. Younger generations, particularly Millennials, appear less inclined to financially support their alma mater
  4. College student enrollment has declined for eight straight years and is expected to remain near current levels, at least in the medium term (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)
  5. Giving is highly and positively correlated with the stock market: how will institutions weather the “reversion to mean” that most experts expect?

With the vast majority of college and university leaders laser-focused on the financial sustainability of their institutions, many alumni outreach programs focus too much time and thought on asking alumni for money and too little time and thought on building the very loyalty and commitment that would motivate philanthropy.

To get more alumni to choose your institution for philanthropic endeavors, you’ll need to take the time and resources to know what it would take to get past “why?” and get them to “yes.”

Naturally, the degree to which you’re able to align your outreach programs with what alumni value generally and as distinct individuals will markedly impact your long term fundraising success. Here are three areas upon which you may want to focus your efforts:

  1. Using in-depth interviews and focus groups with a stratified sample of alumni. Here are several examples of questions to explore that will shape your outreach programs:
    • What do alumni value most from their student experience?
    • What do they value most from their affiliation with the school today?
    • How would they like to be involved in the school today?
    • What could be changed to make the school more relevant to their professional lives?
  2. While there are certainly some common themes across your alumni universe, relevancy and personalization enhance propensities to give. At the end of the day, philanthropy is a very personal act, and recognition and dignity influence loyalty behavior. Pragmatic segmentation, to tailor treatments to more homogenous audiences and including near-individual-level messaging will empower more alumni to give.
  3. Your institution possess valuable assets in the eyes of your alumni, starting with the faculty and the research they conduct, and extending to athletic teams and affinity clubs. When you develop your outreach programs, your annual editorial calendar and related contact plans, be sure to identify which assets best align with what your alumni value. While there may be virtually hundreds of possibilities, it is an important exercise to sift through them and pick a small subset that could have a positive impact on a broad segment of alumni as well as the more granular affinities such as the debating or the soccer team that map well to historically loyal alumni with significant capacity to give.

Fostering alumni philanthropy is not for the faint-of-heart. With the right foundations and a thoughtful, long-term-relationship-based approach, you can empower more graduates to support your institution. After all, there are three colleges in the US where more than 50% of alumni give each year—why not yours?