A challenging environment
Universities rely on alumni for gifts and donations, but the number of donors is decreasing. Institutions are dependent on a dwindling number of people who are giving more, which creates less stability and greater vulnerability. This state of affairs can carry an institution for a time, but is it really a sustainable strategy? What does it mean for the future? Should we just keep doing what we’ve been doing and hope for the best? Boston University advancement VP Dan Allenby doesn’t think so.
“It’s time to ask some new questions and set better goals for our institutions. It’s time to examine what is and isn’t working in our advancement practices and to look at how we can improve our alumni base.”
In the spirit of asking new questions, we recently conducted research with a large sample of alumni from the United States and Canada. We found a great deal of scope to increase the number of donors, and discovered that the key to success is building engagement and a sense of connection.
The base and the potential
In North America, there are roughly 86 million alumni of post-secondary institutions. Just a small subset are members of their alumni associations. Further, only 12% reported donating to their alma mater in the past year.
But why is this number so small? What is it that drives some to join and donate, while others just walk away?
It’s about feeling connected
Our research reveals that the biggest predictor of both being a member of an alumni association and donating is feeling “connected to my post-secondary institution”. That connection is an emotional bond and it is strongly linked to being “proud to be an alumni”. We know that a sense of pride or attachment is linked to being a member. And we understand that alumni who donate feel more connected to their school and want to help build future success. So how do we get more alumni engaged and connected? How do we fuel the donation cycle?
The path to donation
Guiding alumni down the path
If the only people that felt connected and proud were existing members and donors, there would be real concern that there is no potential for reversing the trend of a shrinking donor base. The good news is that two-thirds (65%) feel proud to be an alumni and half (52%) feel connected. The gap between those numbers and the percentage who are members and donors indicates incredible opportunity to convert unrequited pride into a sense of connection, and connection into membership, and membership into donating. These gaps signal a tantalizingly tangible opportunity.
Mind the gap
But how can these gaps be closed? Fresh insights into what alumni want and need are a great place to start. “Alumni today (especially young alumni) have different attitudes and needs. The world has changed and so have the ways and reasons alumni relate to their institutions. Unfortunately, we in advancement haven’t adapted.”
And when is the best time to start engaging and understanding alumni? When they are students. “The engagement of students before they become alumni has proven to enhance alumni engagement. Specifically, students’ involvement in extracurricular activities is correlated to higher alumni participation rates and higher giving,” according to Giving USA.
That’s why we have developed insight communities with learning streams geared to current students. Our Alumni in the Making communities enable institutions to understand how students connect to the university, their hopes and dreams for the future, and how your institution can fan the flames of love and pride to build connections that last. It’s also a perfect vehicle for testing engagement ideas, refining marketing materials, and finding extracurricular programs that resonate with tomorrow’s alumni.
Maintaining the connection
Once a student has graduated, the focus has to be on understanding how to retain the sense of connection and turn that into ongoing membership and contributions. Our Alumni Forever insight communities allow you to deepen your relationship with alumni and understand the type of connections and communications they want. Understanding how your alumni wish to connect and what they will (and will not) respond to is also vitally important, because it drives donating.
“The need for strong alumni communication also stands out as an important factor” reports Giving USA. “Research shows that those alumni who are more informed about their institution give more than those who are not as well informed. However, it is critical to understand and utilize their preferred communication methods (online, social media, etc.). And, investment in alumni activities by the institution increases the likelihood of alumni giving. It is important to consider the investment in the alumni experience beyond reunions and events to student mentoring, career placement, governing and advisory board service, to name a few.”
With an Alumni Forever insight community, you can understand information needs, grasp preferred communication channels and get feedback on which events and activities have the greatest appeal and value.
You can also test direct mail and email, using our proprietary virtual mailbox and e-mailbox tools. They help you zero in on the communications that are most likely to be opened and responded to, so that you can test a much wider variety of options than typical A/B testing affords.
The big picture: the Alumni Connection Guide
Our syndicated study, the Alumni Connection Guide is your go-to source for understanding how to attract and retain students and develop a lasting alumni relationship. The bi-annual study reveals how to foster sense of connection, and explains what communication methods and types of outreach can help strengthen an emotional bond. The focus is on transforming a feeling of connection into an action that builds your institution and reinforces the link with the alumni. The study zeros in on the next generation of alumni by surveying prospective students (and parents), to give you a competitive advantage in marketing to your future base.
The way forward
Educational institutions live in tumultuous times. The simplest thing is to stay the course and risk it all on a few big donors. But the more sustainable path is to grow your donor base by turning a widespread sense of pride into an emotional connection, and nurturing your connection for long-term engagement. The students and alumni are ready. The tools to help you are there. What are you waiting for?
To learn more, contact us. We’d love to talk with you about your alumni opportunities.
- Class Exodus, D. Allenby, Currents Magazine, March 2015
- Class Declining Alumni Giving: What’s happening? Why is it happening? And, what can we do about it?, T. Radde, Giving USA, March 2015