Five keys to elevating donor participation rates

Boston University leader suggests new ways to connect with alumni

Colleges need to rethink their development strategies to keep pace with the changing world of alumni giving, Boston University's Dan Allenby writes in CURRENTS magazine.

In the past few decades, the average alumni giving rate has fallen by half—from 18% in 1990 to less than 9% in 2013, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Allenby, Boston University's assistant vice president for annual giving, acknowledges the decline could be partially caused by growing alumni populations. However, he argues in CURRENTS (which is published by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) that lagging donor participation also reflects advancement professionals' failure to connect with a new generation of donors.

Even in the age of major gifts, alumni participation remains important. A broad base of donors helps schools remain independent and buffers them against the boom-or-bust nature of major gifts. And, of course, donor participation rate factors into a college's U.S. News and World Report ranking—constituting one of the few criteria that schools can control and change.

However, the rising cost of college has made many donors more reluctant to give; the idea of "giving back" has less salience when many alumni are still paying off student loans. Furthermore, Allenby points out, one of the major ways that colleges historically provided value to their alumni—serving as a conduit for staying connected throughout life—has been replaced by social media.

157 ways to collect alumni and student data

To connect with donors and increase participation rates, Allenby encourages schools to focus on five key efforts:

1. Make it a priority: Increasing donor participation doesn't happen on its own. Schools like Mount St. Mary's University have dramatically increased their overall giving rate by focusing on current students. Virginia's Christopher Newport University doubled its rate of alumni giving in five years by consistently telling donors why participation was important.

Creating a culture of giving among currents students

2. Tailor your message: Simply asking alumni to "give back" won't do anymore. Allenby says you should use data to customize your message for different groups, and then tell stories about gift impact that resonate. For instance, the Stanford University website tells donors exactly what their donations achieved, writing "that's about eight scholarships, nine research grants, and three student groups."

3. Recognize consistent giving: Allenby says this is particularly important for young donors, who may not be able to give much. Vanderbilt University increased alumni participation with its Oak Leaf Society—which recognizes alumni for giving two consecutive fiscal years in any amount.

4. Make it a two-way street: Keep providing value to alumni by supporting their professional development after they graduate. James Madison University says its alumni career services have helped increase donor participation rates.

5. Be active on social media: Much of the social infrastructure that alumni networks provide has moved online—and out of a university's control. So Allenby suggests trying to meet alumni where they already are. Allenby initially started an alumni group for Boston University on Linkedin, but found an independent group got much more traffic. Rather than compete, he worked with graduates who ran the group to combine the networks, and help him manage it day to day (Allenby, CURRENTS, October 2014).

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