Participation vs. Dollars?
What's Your Goal for Senior Class Gifts?
By Andrew N. Robison, President
Recently I was having a conversation with a former colleague, Jessi, about the challenges of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving. We were both struck by how difficult it can be in this industry to identify the right goals and metrics and how easy it can be to get trapped going down a road that nobody really wants to be on. Because I strongly believe that these concerns are shared by virtually everyone in Alumni Relations, I decided to share some of those questions with you.
Andrew: In your world of Annual Giving, what’s the best indicator of a successful alumni giving program – high dollars or high participation?
Jessi: Many institutions across the country, including my own, place heavy emphasis on the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities each year. Working in Alumni Relations & Development, there’s usually only one ranking factor that my department can help influence to determine our placement on this list, and that’s alumni participation.
My alumni participation percentage is usually the weight riding around my shoulders throughout most of the year. From the moment we start our new fiscal year on July 1, I’m tracking alumni participation. Come June 1, I’m more focused on meeting my alumni participation goal than I am meeting my annual fund dollar goal. Does that seem crazy to you? Yeah, me too.
This becomes a case of what my boss often calls “the work getting in the way of the work.” The goal of increased alumni participation often overrides the dollar goal by the end of the year, despite the fact that we can accomplish much more overall with higher dollars versus more donors.
Andrew: How do you shift that focus to be more balanced, or will the system allow that change?
Jessi: So in regards to the question of which is more important – why can’t it be both? Through proper segmentation, through studying our donors and their behaviors, and through instilling philanthropic ideals into our alumni before they are even alumni, I think it can. As students graduate each year and our alumni base grows, our donor base should grow along with it – if we have planted the right seeds along the way. It’s unrealistic to expect the two to grow at the same rate, but simple math does indicate that more alumni does equal more potential donors.
I also believe that we need some pretty monumental shifts in how we ask our alumni to give back. The classic two answers I get from alumni are either, “I haven’t been out long enough and don’t have any money to give” OR “I haven’t heard from you in over 10 years and now just you want money.” I think that we as an industry have to be open to new ideas to break this cycle because it won’t get better on its own.
Andrew: What are some ideas that you’re currently working on?
Jessi: Moving forward, my department is trying to take steps to foster more relationships with current students, so we have already developed a spirit of giving by the time that student becomes an alumni. It seems like a no-brainer, but with a very small staff of only five people (I’m the only Annual Giving staff member), it’s a large undertaking. I truly think this is a large piece to the puzzle, though. If we can rely on young alumni to boost participation with (initially) smaller gifts, while still cultivating our more mature donors for larger ones, perhaps we can strike a balance that will satisfy all areas.
Andrew: Do you have hope that things will improve or are we just stuck where we are?
Jessi: I definitely believe that we can still turn the ship around. Like I said, I am not sure that our current way of doing things will be enough to provide that transformation that’s really needed but I believe that new ideas will surface that can do that. We have a small shop – and honestly, I don’t know a single Alumni Relations shop that would say they are overstaffed – so it’s really hard to sit down long enough to actually come up with those great ideas, but I believe that is what it will take.
Jessi’s situation is not unique in any way.
We have lived this struggle as practitioners for too long and are ready to see that transformation. Contact us for help with your Senior Class Gift Program.
Andrew N. Robison is President of Petrus Development. He has worked for over 12 years in development roles in Catholic campus ministry, higher education and academic medicine. Andrew works with organizations of all sizes to build sustainable development programs that allow them to better serve their constituencies.