Monday, June 1

Engagement Is Key to Successful Alumni Fundraising

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by Rosetta Clay

by Rosetta Clay

For years, alumni relations professionals have created, implemented, and executed events and programs that are intended to build relationships with alumni of their respective institutions in hopes of alumni becoming loyal donors. In most cases to achieve this goal, alumni need to feel there has been some level of engagement before their first gift, and any annual giving.

This article addresses three key aspects of alumni fundraising:

  • Alumni engagement models behavior
  • Transformational versus transactional
  • Focus on philanthropy

Alumni Engagement Models Behavior

Through the years, it has become increasingly important to engage alumni in ways that resonate and are meaningful to them personally. This is usually through student programming, as most alumni recall their life as a student and how important it was to have interactions with alumni. Creating opportunities for alumni to engage with students accomplishes a few things:

1) It models behavior for students who become alumni.

2) Alumni have a sense of connection and impact with current students.

3) It strengthens relationships with other administrative offices on campus that service students, in particular Student Affairs, Career Centers, and Admissions Offices.

I have found it extremely important (and successful) to partner with other administrative offices to execute alumni volunteer opportunities. In most instances, these opportunities are inherent in existing student programs, as most of their work is contingent upon alumni involvement. And, if there isn’t an alumni component, partnering allows a dialog of how adding this element could enhance the program.

In modeling alumni behavior to students, it is important to start this process as early as possible. For example, I have partnered with Admissions staff for many years to have alumni involved in recruitment of prospective students. While working at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, we asked alumni to assist in recruiting prospective MBA students. In doing so, alumni had the option to have a conversation via phone, over coffee, or during lunch to share their experience and answer questions, in hopes of it being a deciding factor in that student choosing the Smith School.

While at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, I partnered with the Admissions Office to develop a certification program for alumni to assist in recruiting students through college fairs. The Aggie Alumni Recruitment program was formalized to provide training to alumni who would be available to participate in fairs on behalf of the University. The program was highly successful with alumni, who were often donors to the school’s annual fund.

The Aggie Student Alumni Association of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The Aggie Student Alumni Association of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Working with Career Centers should also be a high priority partnership, especially since alumni are a great pipeline and resource for assisting in professional development, internship, and job opportunities. There are many ways to have alumni return to campus to participate with current students including conducting mock interviews, speaking in classrooms, and sharing their experience as a panelist or keynote speaker at events. In addition, mentor programs have become extremely valuable to students and highly impactful for alumni. In developing an ongoing relationship with a current student, this helps to provide alumni with a very strong sense of impact on how that student develops as a person.

Transformational versus Transactional

Fundraising has had to evolve through the years primarily because of donors. Donors have become more savvy about the idea of donating, what organizations they will support, and how they believe their contribution will make an impact. Colleges and universities are no longer able to rely on alumni affinity for their alma mater translating into giving. They want to believe they are making a difference and want to know where their dollar is going to make a difference. In saying that, developing relationships through engagement is what resonates with alumni and creates opportunities for giving.

All giving and support is appreciated. However, it’s difficult to make an impact if the giving is always connected to a transaction. A transactional gift is one in which the donor receives something in return for their donation, such as participating in a golf outing or purchasing an item at an auction.

Transformational gifts, on the other hand, are more altruistic and don’t include a direct return, such as creating or donating to a scholarship, giving annually, and increased giving through the years. It is incumbent upon staff to create education and awareness for alumni in hopes of progressing their giving to a more altruistic level if at all possible. Getting to know your alumni, who their family is, what their values and beliefs are, and how to connect this information to giving opportunities will create engaged giving. Showing alumni how their giving can be transformational for current and future students, by telling stories of others’ gifts and support, provides a path for them to follow.

I have always believed that if you engage alumni in ways that are meaningful and purposeful to them, they will give because they understand how their contribution can have an impact in supporting their alma mater. This brings me to my point of today’s donors being more savvy, and how to better understand their behavior.

Intrinsically, donors tend to support a specific cause, rather than an organization. In recent years, we’ve seen a trend in huge increases of donations after events such as natural disasters, mass killings, and activities connected to causes such as disease and health-related issues. People rush to support the cause, not simply the organization. As well, there are more organizations seeking donations than ever before in this country — all at a time when donors are limiting the number of organizations to which they provide support. These are reasons for which colleges and universities have to become more purposeful and meaningful in how to connect with their alumni for donations. There is more competition for donations and it is no longer an automatic assumption that alumni will give back to their school.

I like to refer to this as “engaged giving” with alumni, because there has been a history of engagement through their involvement in attending events, volunteering with students, and/or general alumni activities. All of this activity has created a level of engagement to equate to giving, which ideally starts with the annual fund. In my opinion, getting alumni to understand the importance of their annual support to the institution is crucial. It doesn’t matter what they give to nor how many times they give, but that they give annually to their alma mater is what will enable the school to continue to be in existence.

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There are various opportunities for annual giving such as reunion programming with class gifts, giving circles based on affinity groups (basically crowdfunding, which is becoming increasingly popular), and loyalty programs. All of these are engaged giving programs in which alumni can feel connected, involved, and engaged through varying levels of support for their alma mater.

Focus on Philanthropy

It is important for higher education fundraisers to continually evaluate their approach and seek new ways of understanding and relating to their alumni. They have to be current on industry trends — not just in higher education, but in nonprofit fundraising in general. The first evaluation should be of the differentiator for your organization amongst other competitors. Ask questions such as:

  • What terminology do you use when communicating with alumni?
  • Do alumni know the meaning of the words development and advancement?
  • Are you using internal terms with external constituents?
  • Are you able to succinctly convey your goals?
  • More importantly, can you illustrate the alumni role in achieving these goals?

Because donors are more savvy, want to have greater impact, and need to know how their contributions are being used, it would be advantageous for organizations to focus on philanthropy as a more sustainable view of support. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘philanthropy’ as:

1: goodwill to fellow members of the human race especially: active effort to promote human welfare. 2a: an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes. b: an organization distributing or supported by funds set aside for humanitarian purposes.

This sums up how you would want alumni to feel about giving back to their alma mater. 1: actively promoting the welfare of students. 2a: donating to scholarships. b: your institution receiving endowed funds set aside in perpetuity to educate current and future students.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone working in higher education — faculty and administrators — to do their part to ensure that current students and alumni understand their role in supporting their alma mater through time, talent, and treasure in order for the institution to be sustainable in its offerings for higher education.


About the author

Rosetta Clay is the Assistant Vice President of Engagement at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. She has served in leadership roles in development and alumni relations at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Rosetta earned a B.S. in Mass Communications from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and an M.S. in Marketing Management from The Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School.

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