By Andrew Robison, President of Petrus Development
Ministries and nonprofit organizations are always trying to grow their database of donors. For organizations who have students or program participants, alumni will typically be the largest and most connected segment of their donor population. Many of our campus ministry and Newman Center partners have hundreds or even thousands of new alumni every year but struggle with how to get them into their database and then engage them in meaningful way. Many ministries also struggle with a mailing list full of older alumni who have no connection to the ministry because nobody has communicated with them regularly for some time.
These are challenges that many Catholic ministries, and especially Newman Centers face. In order to help organizations overcome this problem, we’ve created a list of 10 ideas and initiatives that can help you capture and re-engage alumni. This list is by no means complete because I am constantly hearing of new ideas, but hopefully you’ll be able to implement some of these strategies to generate some new names as well as new ideas for your ministry
- Student registration: The best way to capture alumni names is to start before they become alumni. The first two weekends of the fall semester should always be dedicated to conducting a student registration drive. If you have a parish or weekly meeting, dedicate time at the beginning to have students complete a paper registration form. Some organizations have incorporated an online form as well but you will never have the same response rate. As part of this registration form, ask for name, email, phone, expected graduation date and parent contact information. A local mailing address is usually not worth capturing because it will likely change numerous times and certainly won’t be useful once they graduate and move away. This can also be a time to ask if their parents are alumni, thereby capturing multiple alumni at one time. When I was Director of Development at the Newman Center at Ohio State University, we always recorded a very high percentage of student registrations because someone actually walked the students through the form before Mass began on those weekends. We also put up a little money for drawings and prizes for any student who registered. Free stuff is always a great motivator for college students.
- Retreat and Program Registrations: As a follow-on to having a parish-wide registration drive, you should also encourage campus ministers and student leaders to capture information on registrants for retreats and other activities. It’s also important that this information then gets shared with the development office. The contacts of these program participants will be huge for the ministry down the road as you know they had some direct experience in the ministry.
- Strong communication plan: Once you have contact information for alumni, it is critical that you communicate with them consistently. Petrus recommends mailing two newsletters and sending one e-newsletter every year. Typically, your plan would be to mail a fall and spring newsletter and send a summer newsletter via email. The consistency is important as is the content. As a basic outline, your newsletter should include a message from the director, a recent program highlight, a student spotlight, an alumni spotlight and a development message. The development message can cover a wide array of topics, but will typically highlight some recent giving (or a recent gift) and discuss the impact funds have had or will have on the ministry. For Catholic Newman Centers, it is also a good idea to have a vocation spotlight (i.e. alumni in seminary, successful alumni marriage, etc) as this is always an important topic for Catholics, no matter the ministry.
- Reunion events: Every college and university will have a reunion at some point during the year. Sometimes reunions are on Homecoming Weekend in the fall, sometimes they are in the spring. Whenever the university reunion is scheduled for, this is a great opportunity for a campus ministry to host something in conjunction with the weekend. For example, Saint John 23 University Parish has participated in the reunion weekend at Colorado State University for years. They have organized teams of runners for the Reunion 5K, built parade floats, and more. And on Sunday, they host an alumni brunch before everyone heads back home. This is also a great time to tie in with the University publications and on the University reunion website to get publicity for your activities.
- Class Gift Program: In 2005, we started a Class Gift Program at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M where we asked graduating seniors to pledge $1,000 to the ministry. The graduates then fulfill this pledge by giving $20 per month for 50 months. The key is to have them make payments through your monthly giving program so that they don’t have to think about sending in a check every month because you’re charging their credit card or checking account automatically. This program has been incredibly successful over the years and has raised over $900,000 in gifts from over 700 graduates. The money is certainly nice for the ministry, but having 700 recent graduates giving back practically immediately after leaving campus is invaluable. If your ministry has not started a Class Gift Program yet, Petrus can provide tools and resources to get you started.
- Alumni events: Taking the events to the alumni can sometimes be your best strategy for connecting with new alumni and re-engaging alumni who have been out for a while. These events can have a number of different looks but the keys to success are all the same: encourage mingling and socializing, personally meet as many people as possible, have a short program to tell the story of the ministry, and let the guests know what the vision and needs of the ministry are. St. Albert the Great University Parish at Michigan Tech is doing 15 alumni cookouts across the state of Midwest this summer (this is their third summer doing these events). They will invite alumni and parents by email, mail, newsletter and social media and ask them to bring other alumni friends. The events are casual in nature which fits the tastes of the MTU alumni. The cookouts are all outdoors and Father does the cooking of the main dish (usually brats and/or burgers). Guests are asked to bring a side dish or dessert to share and it turns into a tasty potluck for everyone. Children are welcome and most guests show up with their entire family. At some point, Father will take 15-20 minutes to share ministry updates with the guests and this year, he will make an ask to join their Living Faith Society (monthly giving program) to help raise the funds for a new Associate Pastor for the ministry. Whether people make a donation or not, they always come away with a better understanding of the campus ministry and a renewed optimism for serving the college students of Michigan Tech University. Alumni events don’t have to be cookouts. As long as you are gathering alumni together and connecting them with the ministry and with fellow alumni, you are doing it right.
- Diocesan Census: Most dioceses conduct a census of their people every couple of years. This could be a great opportunity to ask the organizers if they would include a question about where survey participants attended college. Sharing the responses from alumni from your institution could provide you with hundreds of new names without any additional work on your part.
- University alumni database: If you are an alum of a college or university, odds are good that you have access to an electronic database of your fellow alumni. If you can ask for and receive a list of names of Catholics from your diocese, you can then cross-reference those Catholics with the alumni database. It’s a tedious process but a perfect job for some students workers or volunteers. This will oftentimes require having a good relationship with the diocese but the request is certainly a reasonable one and can lead to a great list of Catholic alumni in the end. Another use for the university alumni database is to search all alumni based on job titles or employer names. Searching all employer names for “Catholic” could turn up hundreds of alumni who currently or at some point have worked for a church, hospital, diocese or other ministry. This is not a guarantee that those individuals are indeed Catholic, but it’s probably a pretty good shot and certainly worth investigating.
- Old College Yearbooks and Church Files: Even if they haven’t kept a database of alumni, many university churches will keep old files and archives in a cabinet or basement somewhere. Additionally, if there was a Newman Club at the university, you can often find names and pictures in old college yearbooks of the Club members. Looking through archives and files for lists of old parish councils, banquet volunteers and student leaders can lead to identifying tons of alumni who we know were active at some point in their history. Once you have these names, its a good idea to add them to your regular mailing list, but I would also advise sending them a personalized letter to acknowledge their role at the parish. This will serve as a good reminder and bring back some of those old feelings of nostalgia about their times at the ministry.
- Raffle or Sweepstakes: Raffles and sweepstakes are always a lot of work but can also be very effective strategies for capturing new names every year. You have to check your state laws to see how raffles are governed, but if your ministry is allowed to conduct a raffle it is certainly worth considering. The key to using a raffle to connect with alumni and grow your database is to find ways to have your students reach out to their networks of people to buy tickets. Pricing the tickets low may seem like it will hurt the bottom line of the raffle, but this makes it more likely that folks are willing to make a small first-time contribution, thereby increasing the number of new donors. St. Mary’s at Texas A&M ran a raffle for many years and in the mid-2000’s, they were averaging around 400-500 total donors with 200-250 being new alumni and parents every year. This turns a raffle from just a fundraiser into a goldmine for long-term donor acquisition.
So what other strategies have you used to capture and re-engage alumni of your institution? As I mentioned, there are so many ways to reach out to alumni that the possibilities are endless. The trick is to always be thinking of new ways to connect and treat every new alumni name as a reason for serious celebration.
Andrew N. Robison is President of Petrus Development. He has worked for over 13 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.