Alumni fundraising is a key strategy for organizations looking to grow their revenue, particularly for colleges, universities, and other nonprofit high-learning institutions.
There are several different approaches an institution can take when it comes to cultivating donors among its alumni population. In this article, we will walk you through several alumni fundraising and engagement strategies and guide you through the steps you can take to grow your fundraising program.
Let’s get started!
Brief Overview of Alumni Fundraising Strategies
Institutions of higher education such as colleges and universities rely heavily on the generosity of their alumni to advance their mission, increase program and department capacity, and continually serve and educate their student population.
Alumni donations make up a major percentage of total unrestricted giving across U.S. educational institutions.
In 2019 alone, alumni giving at U.S. colleges totaled a whopping $11 billion. This huge amount only encompasses a tiny percentage of total alumni who attended U.S. institutions (8%), meaning that alumni make up a critical component of high education’s funding and there is even more capacity for this population to give.
Celebrities and people of note frequently donate to the schools they attended as a way of giving back after achieving professional success.
In 2004, Michael Douglas made a major donation of $1 million to his alma mater UC Santa Barbara, and two year’s later filmmaker George Lucas gave a staggering $175 million to the USC School of Cinematic Arts—the largest single donation in the institution’s history.
In some ways alumni fundraising is quite easy since soliciting their support does not require making a strong case for the institution—they are already quite familiar with the organization and its work and oftentimes are deeply grateful and pleased with their experiences there.
Alumni are not a population that will disappear either. With each graduating class, new alumni are introduced to this segment of the population meaning your audience is rarely depleted.
That being said, alumni fundraising can be a challenging enterprise. Many institutions find that budget reductions, IT and data inefficiencies, and a lack of staff capacity all contribute to difficulties sustaining a successful alumni relations program.
Moreover, as higher education becomes more and more unaffordable, making the ask of alumni can seem a much more significant request than it did in years past. After all, why should an alumni donate to an institution they already paid several thousand dollars to attend?
The existing and sometimes complex relationship alumni have with their alma mater means that soliciting donations requires approaches that are slightly different from an ask made for another type of nonprofit organization.
In the next section, we are going to go over some common alumni fundraising and engagement strategies that can help foster and grow these relationships.
Insight Into Different Fundraising Strategies
There are many different approaches to alumni fundraising. Let’s take a look at a few common strategies that can help your organization best engage with and secure donations from this key demographic.
Research and Identify Alumni With a Large Capacity to Give
Most major learning institutions have legions of alumni from decades of graduating classes (sometimes centuries!).
Universities do not typically have the capacity to reach out personally to every single graduate from previous graduating classes—so it is important to incorporate alumni research into the fundraising process.
Some alumni may have a greater capacity to give, so it’s essential to identify them so that you can reach out to them individually.
This can be accomplished by keeping up to date data available in your donor management software or even performing wealth screenings on your alumni database.
Develop a Targeted Giving Campaign
In addition to researching and identifying alumni with a large capacity to give, it is just as important to engage with all of your university’s alumni through giving campaigns.
Even if it’s impossible to reach out to each alumni individually, it is still possible to make the fundraising experience feel personal by creating segmenting audiences.
You can segment your alumni by things like graduating year, major, and university activities (such as known memberships in clubs, teams, and campus groups).
By segmenting alumni into separate groups you can craft solicitations that feel more personal to their experiences. You can even target specific populations for certain campaigns (e.g. targeting former athletes for the construction of a new football stadium).
You can also segment your alumni population by age so that you can best communicate with them.
For example, your oldest generations of alumni are probably not active on social media and may not respond to outreach hosted on those platforms. However, these older generations may have more capacity to give than the younger alumni who are just starting out in their careers.
Segmenting your alumni into different audiences will allow you to create targeted giving campaigns that use the right communication channels and that try to solicit the right amount of support.
Develop a Recurring Giving Program
Recurring donors are vital to any nonprofit organization’s funding strategy, and this is certainly true for higher learning institutions.
These types of donations are sustaining, meaning that they can help secure a steady source of revenue that the institution can rely on for the long-term.
While a $175 million award from a single alumni is certainly impressive, at the end of the day, smaller, consistent donations are the backbone of any successful fundraising program. According to a recent industry study, recurring giving makes up approximately 15.4% of nonprofit revenue.
A great way to inspire alumni to support your institution with recurring donations is to connect them with the impact of their giving.
For example, maybe you could reach out to alumni who received scholarships while attending the university and see if they would be willing to support a specific scholarship annually. You could even update the donors each year with stories of the winners of the scholarship.
For more tips on how to secure recurring support for your nonprofit, check out this post.
Research Matching Gifts
Most alumni have hopefully graduated from their alma mater with glowing recommendations, an impressive GPA, and went on to enter a dream career.
Your alumni are a built-in connection to corporations and other major organizations that have charitable giving programs that you can leverage through matching gift campaigns.
Corporate matching gifts are a type of giving mechanism in which a company will match a donation an employee makes to a charity, nonprofit, or institution of their choice, effectively doubling the employee’s impact.
Many businesses offer matching programs as part of an employee’s benefit package. Alumni may not be willing to give huge amounts of money but if they are aware of their employer’s matching gift program they may be more likely to donate knowing even a small amount from them will make a greater impact.
For example, Bank of America has a matching gifts program where they will match employees’ gifts to nonprofits up to $5000 annually.
Pursue Corporate Partnerships
In addition to being employees at great companies, many alumni may also own their own companies, sit in prominent leadership roles at corporations, or hold meaningful relationships with executives.
Corporate sponsorships are mutually beneficial partnerships in which a corporate entity, business, or private enterprise provides financial or in-kind sponsorship to a nonprofit organization. This can be in the form of a monetary donation or in-kind giving such as providing equipment or loaning space to host a special event.
Connecting with your alumni and identifying their connections to corporate giving initiatives can help you secure meaningful and potentially long-term support.
Create Meaningful Relationships
Perhaps the most important strategy for alumni fundraising is relationship cultivation.
Getting to know your donors, whether they are alumni or not, is imperative. Most donors can tell when they are being treated inauthentically and it can be a huge turn off when a person thinks they are being fed boilerplate language or that the solicitor has no idea who they really are.
Do not simply solicit your alumni every year with the same message and same issues being addressed. Be intentional about when, why, and how you are contacting certain alumni.
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There are so many ways to connect with and create meaningful relationships with alumni.
Let’s take a look at some of those methods of engagement and how you can leverage these strategies to transform alumni into long-term donors.
Alumni events are a major component of alumni relationship building at institutions.
You can invite your alumni to things like:
webinars, seminars, and workshops
job fairs and employer conferences
other fun activities like class reunions
Alumni events are a primary aspect of most alumni relations departments at major institutions. For example, the University of Michigan School of Law offers countless alumni events every month including fundraisers, service days, and reunions.
These types of events are perfectly suited to engage alumni and cultivate strong relationships with them in the hopes of converting them into donors.
However, the events do not have to specifically exist to raise money for the institution.
In fact it is sometimes better if the engagement happens with no strings attached. At fundraisers or galas, there is often an assumption that an attendee has to give money and that could put a lot of pressure and strain on both sides of the donor relationship.
Engagement via alumni events allows your institution to begin building authentic relationships with alumni—getting them interested in remaining involved with the organization in the hopes that they may eventually begin donating.
Alumni Associations are a primary source of fundraising for institutions.
Alumni Associations exist to keep students connected to the institution and their peers long after they have graduated. Alumni in these associations are often invited to exclusive events, offered special perks, and most importantly are an established community of former students that you can partner with in the fundraising process.
Most of these associations require a membership fee to join, which is primarily where most of their funding comes from. Moreover, these are alumni you can rely on to help promote the institution and they can be valued partners in fundraising efforts.
Major institutions like Yale University have huge, robust alumni networks and associations that regularly engage alumni to make their experience more impactful and life long.
Email, Phone, and Letters
It’s important to note that many alumni simply do not have the capacity to get involved with their university or college once they have graduated.
They may have taken on a time consuming role at work or are more involved with a different nonprofit that means a great deal to them.
The best way to continue fostering relationships with these individuals is by going back to the basics for donation solicitation and engagement—email, phone, and mail.
Many universities employ current students to reach out to alumni by phone and encourage them to donate by sharing their stories and reminding alumni of why they loved their own academic experiences.
Universities and colleges can send email and letters to keep alumni up to date on important events, organizational changes, and new initiatives.
Even if certain alumni are not obvious candidates for donors, that does not mean they will not give. Each alumnus is an important piece of the institution and their support, no matter how infrequent or how small, is as crucial as major donations and grand awards. These are the donations that will sustain your work for the long-term.
Wrapping Up: The Next Steps
Alumni fundraising is critical for any institution of higher learning.
Fostering healthy relationships with alumni and connecting with key organizations and groups on campus are all helpful ways to grow a robust alumni fundraising program and ensure the sustainability and longevity of your organization.
Want to learn more about fundraising for universities, colleges, and other educational institutions? Look no further than Instrumentl! Browse through Instrumentl’s library of resources, blog posts, and trainings to help you build out a strong fundraising program today.
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