To engage millennial donors, ask for time, not money

82% of young alumni who volunteer say they plan to donate, too

See EAB's take on this story.

College and university development offices are working to engage graduating seniors  in non-monetary ways—in hopes that it will pay off financially in the long run, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Even if young alumni's gifts do not cover the cost of outreach, schools should still run the programs, say fund-raising experts. Otherwise, they say, there is a dangerous possibility this millennial cohort will never grow into a significant source of financial support.

According to a 2014 report from the Chronicle and Achieve:

  • Around 75% of young alumni said they will give to another nonprofit before to their college;
  • More than 50% had never given money to their alma mater; and
  • Around 33% said they thought their money would be better used elsewhere.

Yet 82% of alumni who volunteered for their college said they will donate financially as well.

As a result, many advancement offices are going through a philosophical shift: asking recent graduates for time instead of money. In this way, they aim to preserve ties with potential donors until the young alumni finish paying off their student loans and stabilize their wealth—when gifts may start rolling in.

For example, at Susquehanna University, instead of just requesting a check, officials now ask graduating students to take part in at least one of six senior campaigns, such as recommending a potential applicant or participating in a university-coordinated day of community service.

"If we get them saying yes, it becomes harder for them to say no, and that's what we want the case to be over the next 50 to 60 years," says Ron Cohen, head of advancement.

Susquehanna now recognizes alumni who donate large amounts of time at an annual fall event—an idea Cohen says was inspired by a 26-year-old alumnus of another school who volunteered at college fairs and connected with about 100 prospective applicants per year. If just three of those 100 individuals enroll at the institution, they would together contribute $240,000 to the school via fees and tuition, says Cohen.

"We have way more people who can do what that 26-year-old has done than can write a check for $240,000," he says.

What makes millennials tick? You might be surprised.

Similarly, as part of a 125th anniversary fundraising campaign at Whitworth University, officials are asking alumni to notify them of any service or financial contributions to nonprofits in order to document the school's part in improving the world. It also helps those in the advancement department identify civic-minded alumni, who "at some point... will need to become our most important financial supporters," says Scott McQuilkin, VP for institutional advancement.

Other institutions have trimmed happy hour and tailgating events in favor of educational programs for young alumni, such as panel discussions on entrepreneurism, personal finance, and even apartment hunting.

"If the young alumni have the sense that the university is behind their professional ascent, they'll be more likely to give back in future years," says Dan Klamm, Syracuse University's director of young alumni engagement in New York City (Gose, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/9).

The takeaway: College and university development offices are increasingly asking recent graduates to donate time, rather than money to their alma maters in an attempt to stay engaged with young alumni until they hit their financial stride.

EAB's take

Katie Stratton Turcotte, Advancement Forum

Volunteering has always been a mechanism that nonprofits both utilize to accomplish their missions and to engage current and potential donors in order to get that next gift. While many universities are focused on major gifts in the short-term, that focus is often at the expense of building an engaged donor pipeline which risks efforts down the road. Today's failure to build a broad base of support among young donor segments probably doesn't sabotage tomorrow's campaign, but it will jeopardize the one after that.

What's even tougher is that donors Generation X and Millennials are not like the ones that came before them; they respond to neither the impassioned plea nor issues that don't solve problems, but rather to an accounting of return-on-investment for their gift's impact on students, faculty, or the community – both local and global. Our work on Creating a Culture of Giving Among Current Students serves as a primer featuring proven strategies on student and young alumni engagement in philanthropy in order to get them in the habit of giving back.

The unreported story in the Chronicle's article, and one that is of great interest to the Advancement Forum, is the role of alumni relations and the contribution their work can have on development strategy. At many institutions, alumni relations and development are siloed. However, progressive institutions are recognizing that the much-derided "friend-raising" of alumni relations is in fact just the development officer's "prospect cultivation" by another name—and it's just as sweet.

At the end of the day, it's about building engagement and affinity among friends and alumni to keep them "warm" for eventual solicitation down the road. Gifts of "time" and "talent" are likely to lead to financial gifts in the future. At the Advancement Forum’s upcoming national meeting for Chief Advancement Officers, we plan to discuss in-depth strategies to cultivate prospects using volunteering opportunities.

See our study The Strategic Alumni Relations Enterprise (or the on-demand webinar here) to learn  about more how this function is evolving to better support university-wide objectives, rather than just social engagement or event attendance. In particular, read about mission-critical volunteer opportunities that allow alumni to contribute to reduction of summer enrollment melt and to student career development.


  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague