A Better Way to Build Young Alumni Loyalty

photo credit: Browning School

There are wide variations in the levels of financial support that alumni offer to their alma maters. While alumni giving rates at a few select colleges and universities may approach 60% of the identifiable alumni, most institutions have substantially lower levels. It’s a persistent source of discussion in budget conversations on most college campuses.

Explanations for lower alumni giving rates are many:

  • Many colleges give scant attention to programs designed to improve alumni giving. Some have increasingly constrained resources, especially in discretionary funding, to launch a new alumni giving initiative or to support existing programs.
  • Other colleges argue that their alumni giving efforts are limited by the populations that they serve, philanthropic giving patterns among graduates, and smaller alumni base.

It is certainly true that few higher education institutions have the rich traditions of alumni support enjoyed by Wellesley or Washington & Lee, and even fewer have the resource-rich fundraising machines that fuel giving at institutions like Stanford and Harvard.

Overall, total donations to higher education rose by 6.3% to $43.6 billion in 2017. Alumni giving rose by 14.5 percent to $11.37 billion in the same period.

Alumni giving is critical to general institutional support on college and university campuses.

  • It symbolizes a robust and fruitful relationship between a college and its graduates.
  • Alumni giving often supports critical scholarships and endows professorships and research.
  • Donations from alumni are a critical component of the annual operating support that an institution receives.
Some colleges can effectively and efficiently create a special bond with future alumni because their programs and student life initiatives are so differentiated that a unique, lifelong relationship develops on campus that continues from matriculation through the alumni years.

For these colleges, alumni give back to their colleges because they “feel it.”

Challenge of Creating Young Alumni Donors

Traditional fundraising has assumed that young graduates need time to become established before their philanthropic giving emerges. There is often a good deal of chatter on campus about how the institution can reconnect with alumni as donors 20 and 30 years after graduation, when they are presumed to have discretionary income and can better afford to be charitable.

Most colleges have been chipping away at this premise for years, working hard to establish “senior class gifts” that lock in a tradition of individual support with varying levels of success even before students become alumni.

Cycle of Wealthy Students Becoming Wealthy Alumni

Looking closely at the numbers, two patterns emerge. The first is that wealthy colleges and universities often attract wealthy applicants, who graduate to become alumni with more personal and family resources behind them.

The second is that these individuals often obtain employment in fields that pay higher salaries, speaking both to the quality of the education and the value of the pedigree. These traditions enabled college administrations to invest in alumni giving programs in part because the payment was obvious and immediate.

But it’s the pedigree that speaks most to their success. Wealthy universities with successful alumni have connections across business, industry, government, and the professions that college officials understand and appreciate.

One of the great values of an Ivy education is the alumni network that is available to students looking beyond graduation. Who you know can become critical to where you end up.

Investment in Career Services is Investment in Alumni Giving

This is an area in which most American colleges and universities can improve. Such improvement will require two changes. The first is that colleges and universities must invest in their career centers much more strategically. It is no longer enough to support engineers and business majors where the alumni connections are most clear. These alumni networks must also imagine ways to develop programs for graduating humanities, social science, and music majors.

If the academic program merits institutional investment, college administrators must not stop short, assuming that students will find their way to meaningful work.

College career counseling center must serve all students, using training, new presentation techniques, and whatever alumni networks exist to build to better retention and graduation rates.

Seamless Pathway from Admission Through Graduation

It comes down to one simple fact. The best way to build alumni support is to create a seamless pathway for students graduating to become alumni. For younger alumni, it’s better to demonstrate first that the institution stands with them through the first stages of their career than to immediately assume that they have the resources or inherent inclination to contribute.

What’s the best approach?

One possibility is to merge alumni affairs and career counseling into one operation. The college must be more willing to imagine a comprehensive approach to alumni support because it demonstrates a continual, unbroken connection that serves a student’s interest.

By doing so, the college sends a powerful message to recent graduates who become future donors. That message is that “we’re with you,” believe in the value of what we offered, and accept you as part of a larger community dedicated to helping you contribute to society.

It’s the right message. And it will pay handsome dividends.