Classy - Allison Guass-avatar1
Allison Gauss
5 min

Triumphant University Fundraising Relies on These 3 Alumni Engagement Strategies

The other side of university fundraising starts with a call from an unknown number. If I’m not busy, I pick up and quickly regret it. A chipper young student from my alma mater asks how I’m doing and now I wonder how long it will take to get to the ask.

I am irritated, but polite. After all, she’s just another student trying to pay a fraction of her tuition with a part-time job. Her job just happens to be calling alumni to ask for donations.

I’ll admit, I’ve been jaded since the first time they called, when I was out of school for maybe a year. After a few minutes of small talk about how I’m doing and all the exciting things going on at the university, the young woman asked me if I would like to make a $500 donation that day. Instead of laughing at her, I simply declined.

She then lowered the ask. To $250.

As someone who researches and writes about fundraising, I can appreciate the need to appeal to people with ties to your institution, especially as public universities face cuts to state funding. But as a twenty-something who graduated into a recession with a literature degree and student loan debt, I was shocked.

How could university fundraisers be so out of touch?

University Fundraising Strategy #1

Recognize That All Alumni are Not the Same

7 out of 10 students graduating this year are leaving with student loan debt. On average, those students owe $33,000. Like it or not, these alumni will probably want to pay for their own education before funding someone else’s.

On the other hand, there are many successful, older alumni who you should definitely ask for support. The point is that alumni span nearly all stages of life and financial situations. For universities seeking donations from alumni, segmenting is absolutely necessary.

Asking for the equivalent of my rent payment showed that my school hadn’t put much thought into their ask. Alumni associations have, at the very least, a contact’s graduation year. With the steep rise in student debt over the years, this in itself may indicate a graduate’s ability to donate. With this in mind, another way to engage recent grads is to ask them to fundraise for the school.

University Fundraising Strategy #2

Implement P2P Fundraising for Recent Grads

Peer-to-peer fundraising can be a great fit for recent grads who may not be willing or able to donate. These millennials are tech-savvy and are used to navigating online social networks. Giving them the opportunity to fundraise empowers them to support their university with the skills and resources they have. Some friends and family may give simply to support the alumnus’s goal, but fundraisers may also be able to reach other alumni for whom you don’t have up-to-date contact information.

Besides, people are more willing to support a friend’s personal fundraising page and appeal versus a stranger calling from a university’s development department.

Here are a few tips on asking your alumni to fundraise

• Make it personal

With some schools educating tens of thousands of students, alumni appeals can sound impersonal and vague. Am I fundraising for the Physics Department or the football team?
Whenever possible, ask alumni to fundraise for specific projects. Help create a personal connection for alumni by sending them an impact story relating to their department of study.

• Give them a concrete goal

This is another way to make fundraising for the school a more focused pursuit. Offer concrete goals such as “fund a merit scholarship” or “send the debate team to the regional tournament.” Show alumni the real-world impact they can have. Like any other donor, they want to do good and make a difference.

• Link it to Social Media

Social media has changed how people stay in touch, with implications for both alumni associations and fundraisers. Use alumni groups on Facebook and LinkedIn to promote fundraising. A graduate can then create a page and share it with their friends and followers.

University Fundraising Strategy #3

Build a Lifelong Relationship

Universities and graduates are both feeling the effects of the recession and the gap between tuition costs and public funding. Colleges are eager to call on their alumni for support, but they must be smart in the way they appeal to different segments of this group.

For alumni who have graduated in the past five years, university fundraising should place its focus on building a lasting relationship with high lifetime donor value. That twenty-something that donates $25 may give more and more as their career progresses. Making a reasonable ask now can create a relationship that pays big dividends later.

Of course, to cultivate those long-term relationships, you need to stay in contact with alumni. If a graduate isn’t interested in donating or fundraising, ask for up-to-date contact information so you can reach out later on.

Finally, remember that a healthy relationship needs give and take. Make sure your alumni association is offering networking and reunion events with value to these potential donors. The goal is to be seen as a partner and resource, not an institution who only calls to ask for cash.

While it makes sense to ask for larger donations from older, more established alumni, make sure your university fundraising strategy provides giving options for your entire community. Like all organizations, your audience is made up of very different people and segmenting will allow you to communicate and fundraise more effectively.


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