Creating a Culture of Giving Among Current Students

Topics: Alumni Affairs, Advancement, Donor and Prospect Relations, Fundraising, Major Gifts and Campaign Strategy

Transitioning from Senior Gifts to Senior Giving

'Building Awareness Is Key with Students'

Advancement leaders have traditionally overlooked the importance of student philanthropy in bridging the gap to young alumni giving. Decades of underinvestment in students produced graduates who had no familiarity with giving back. At some schools, graduating seniors remain unaware that private gifts played any role in institutional finances.

To remedy this situation, advancement leaders have begun hosting philanthropy education events. Programs such as Tag Day and Tuition Runs Out Day raise awareness of private giving and create a sense of excitement on campus.

However, these programs do not get students in the habit of giving back. They focus on education rather than fundraising, so they do not establish a giving history that can be used to make asks after graduation.

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Making the Direct Ask Senior Year

Recognizing the drawbacks of awareness efforts, most institutions bookend philanthropy education with a senior gift campaign.

These campaigns, which range widely in dollar goals and participation rates, involve students in philanthropy rather than just inform them about it. Giving experiences are intended to carry over after graduation to inflect young alumni participation.

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'Benches, Bricks, and Plaques'

Senior gift campaigns typically raise money for small, tangible, commemorative items, such as benches, trees, or plaques. These types of campaigns have numerous limitations that hamper campaign success and post-graduation fundraising efforts.

Many students dislike having to direct their philanthropic dollars to physical objects. In most cases, they would prefer to support causes that directly benefit society, such as hunger relief or cancer research. In addition, they cannot renew their physical gifts when they become young alumni, so advancement staff must start anew when they reach out to recent graduates.

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The Sharp Drop

Underwhelming senior gift campaigns contribute to the sharp drop in participation rates after graduation.

Seniors are left with the impression that philanthropy at their alma mater is small-scale and low-impact. When they decide where to direct their gifts after graduation, they choose other organizations whose case for support hasn’t been sullied by uninspiring campaigns.

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From Senior Gift to Senior Giving

Weak senior gift campaigns represent a missed opportunity to soften the post-graduation drop. Advancement leaders who build persuasive, impact-driven campaigns will see student giving and post-graduation donor retention rates rise.

Three primary approaches to senior giving effectively drive donations from graduating students. Advancement leaders can choose a single compelling campaign goal, such as an endowed scholarship, a small selection of goals, or the full array of funds at the institution.

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The Race to $50,000

Bryant University replaced their tangible senior gift with an endowed class scholarship fund.

Early donors to the campaign vote on the type of scholarship they will award, thereby ensuring that supporters feel invested in the campaign’s success.

Advancement staff and student volunteers pitch the senior gift as the beginning of a five-year project. All young alumni solicitations for the first five years after graduation focus on the class gift. During their phonathon, Bryant segments donors so those who gave to the endowed scholarship in the past receive an update in addition to a solicitation.

By continuing to fundraise for the scholarship through the fifth-year reunion, Bryant uses senior giving to boost young donor retention.

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Looking to Build on Upward Momentum

Since implementing the endowed class scholarship, giving rates for recent graduates have grown by 1% to 2% each year. This increase stems from the visible impact that the endowed scholarship provides to donors.

The scholarship also gives staff an opportunity to drive reunion attendance. The first scholarship recipient will be announced at the fifth-year reunion, which can be leveraged to generate excitement and gifts in the run-up to that class milestone.

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Directing the Philanthropic Impulse

West Virginia University highlights a bounded set of funds for senior donations. Graduating students at the university can select one of three gift designations, including club sports, a student food pantry, and the emergency aid fund.

These causes resonate broadly with the student body, which helps overcome the challenges associated with weak class identity.

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Making It Work on Your Campus

When implementing a bounded choice campaign, it is important to build in high-touch engagement opportunities for students. Involving student donors in fundraising decisions and communicating impact to them will increase the likelihood that they will give again after graduation.

Students’ gift choices can also be used to segment future solicitations. Students who give to a food pantry, for example, may respond readily to solicitations around social justice and community development. Segmenting donors by giving behavior increases the likelihood of repeat gifts and personally invests students in the success of fundraising campaigns.

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Reinvigorating the Senior Gift

The University of Rochester aims to tap into student passions by allowing senior donors to support any fund at the institution. Rochester launched this program in 2010 after years of directing senior dollars to physical objects.

Advancement leaders at the institution realized that physical objects failed to inspire students to give. Moreover, they taught students few lessons about how to give as young alumni. By transitioning to donor-driven student philanthropy, staff provided students with a compelling call to action that carries over into their young alumni years.

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Donor-Driven Philanthropy at Rochester

While developing this program, advancement leaders at Rochester looked to their experience with young alumni for inspiration.

Research through the reunion program indicated that young alumni were especially interested in targeting their gift to specific areas, so staff designed the new senior giving initiative around donor choice.

Now, seniors can give to any of the 200+ funds on Rochester’s campus. This approach provides a bridge to the giving behaviors that graduating seniors exhibit as young alumni.

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'Keep Your Light Burning'

Rochester’s campaign has provided a strong foundation for young alumni giving. In 2013, half of graduating seniors gave to the campaign, and the average gift size was $14. These donations create a bridge for future gift asks and increase the likelihood that young alumni will support the institution.

The campaign has benefited immensely from student-led messaging. Students develop campaign branding to ensure that gift asks resonate with their peers. For example, the 2013 campaign used the tagline “Keep Your Light Burning” to invoke a candle-lighting ceremony from first-year orientation.

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Starting a Lifelong Giving Relationship

Most successful senior giving initiatives share two common traits: they create a continuous donor experience that bridges across graduation, and they leave students with positive philanthropic experiences that inflect future giving.

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Soliciting Students Like Alumni

Texas Christian University epitomizes this transition-focused approach to senior giving. Staff at the institution developed a student campaign that features identical branding and marketing materials for students and young alumni. They supported their messaging with high-quality, student-led asks.

Student volunteers go through an intensive training regimen before beginning to fundraise. The program’s director does not certify them to make their three mandatory presentations until she feels that they can explain the importance of private support as well as any annual giving staff member.

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Emphasizing Impact at TCU

Campaign branding mirrors alumni fundraising initiatives and introduces students to annual giving prior to graduation. Even the campaign’s title, “Count Me In!” is identical to the institution’s annual giving branding.

Marketing materials for students maximize education by explicitly laying out the impact of gifts. For example, advancement staff asked campus units what they could do with the $41,000 seniors raised through the previous year’s campaign. They then designed the infographic pictured here, which illustrates the tangible results that student philanthropy can achieve.

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Bending the Curve on Participation

TCU’s revamped approach to student philanthropy has boosted senior giving and young-alumni donor retention. The senior participation rate increased by over a third since 2010, even with a $50 minimum gift. Moreover, the number of donors being retained after graduation at both the annual giving and leadership levels has increased dramatically. In fact, 36% of senior class donors renew their gift at any level within one year of graduation.

Interviewees at TCU attribute their successes partly to treating seniors like young alumni donors. This approach helps smooth the transition to post-graduation philanthropy.

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Broadening the Campaign

Having achieved positive results with seniors, staff at TCU decided to expand the “Count Me In!” initiative to the rest of their undergraduate classes. They set laddered giving thresholds for each class and granted membership in the Junior Clark leadership giving society to students who give at these levels.

Staff at TCU hope this undergraduate-focused initiative will deepen affinity and produce graduates with multiyear giving histories. The advancement office can then reinforce and expand upon this behavior after students graduate.

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Incentivizing Continuous Giving

The University of Delaware is using membership in a consecutive giving society to drive student philanthropy and transition seniors to young alumni giving.

Students who give senior year are automatically named “Perfect Blue Hens.” They maintain this status as long as they give every year, regardless of the size of their donation. Donors are encouraged to maintain their status through incentives such as exclusive invitations and priority registration for popular events.

Incentive-driven continuous giving societies help maximize lifetime donor value due to the immense revenue difference between a consistent and a sporadic supporter.

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Passion-Driven Giving Increases Participation

By integrating the elements shown here into senior giving initiatives, advancement leaders can increase donor engagement, increase gift sizes, and create a bridge to young alumni giving.

When done well, these campaigns expand the ranks of reliable supporters who can be stewarded toward major gifts in years to come.

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A Critical Time to Acquire Young Donors

Making Direct Asks of All Students