Building Affinity and Planting the Seeds
for Giving

Because adult students represent a growing demographic and one largely untapped in terms of the donor pipeline, advancement shops with a long-term view need to act now to begin planning how to move alumni who were adult students into the pipeline. For advice on how to start, we turned to Don Fellows, president and CEO of Marts and Lundy; Fellows' clients include institutions that have seen early gains in building affinity with nontraditional students and alumni.

"There are real challenges here," Fellows acknowledges. "Adult students often hold full-time jobs and have families; their time is at a premium and their encounter with the institution tends to be a more transactional experience. They come prepared, they pay money out of their own pockets for tuition, and they have their eyes set on the outcome. It's a different experience than the traditional student's. You will need to really invest in getting to know this population well."

Here is Fellows' advice.

Two Obstacles to Overcome

Fellows suggests two common obstacles to cultivating affinity with adults.

First, "because they paid out of pocket, they have a high appreciation for what they received, but they also feel that they have already paid for it." Student philanthropy messages that target adult learners -- if introduced from day one of the student experience -- will be especially crucial in inviting adults enter into a relationship with the institution that is more than just transactional. It will be important to emphasize both:

  • How your institution hopes to support them both while they are enrolled and after graduation
  • The extent to which philanthropy supplies the resources they have access to (that endowed professorship, that smart classroom, etc.); draw attention to the limits of tuition and to specific resources that were funded through donor support

Second, Fellows notes that this older population often expects a higher level of customer service, and they bring to the institution the same expectations they bring to other service providers. "Adults have a different level of expectation and an awareness that they are paying dearly for this education. If they are treated badly when trying to buy books, or when being billed, they are likely to have a more negative perception of the experience than a traditional, college-aged student would."

Whether through surveys, focus groups, or other means of inquiry, Fellows suggests gathering research on your adult students and alumni to get a sense of what their relationship with the institution is really like, where you can improve the experience for them, and what services and communications they would value. "Don't just guess," Fellows advises. "Ask what career services would be meaningful to mid-career or career-transitioning graduates. Find out how your institution can do more to connect with them and help them be successful."

Some Key Suggestions

Fellows offered to share his observations on what works and what doesn't in cultivating adult affinity -- but with the caveat that no amount of expert advice makes up for not having inquired into the specific needs and experiences of your student body.

Here are Fellows' suggestions:

  • Adults often come to a degree program primed for networking -- they want to be connected with their peers, and they also value having a community of other adult learners with whom to share information. "Returning to college can be a grueling experience for them," Fellows notes. "The more you can do to foster peer mentoring and peer networking among your adult students, the better their connection with your institution will be."
  • Adults are likeliest to forge connections with particular faculty members; when reaching out to recent alumni, faculty are likely to be more influential in making a connection than the institution's president or advancement officers.
  • Adults will relate to a particular program or faculty, but are unlikely to connect to the same degree as traditional students with a particular class year -- "don't expect them to come back to reunions; they probably won't," Fellows warns.
  • If you have a number of adult students who are "later in life," consider whether you can find opportunities to raise awareness about your institution's planned giving programs and opportunities.
  • Finally, develop a plan for engaging adult graduates as volunteers.

Adult Alumni as Volunteers

A December 2009 study by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch offers some compelling data to demonstrate the importance of volunteerism to fundraising:

  • The average amount given by volunteers is more than 10 times that given by non-volunteers
  • The rate of volunteering increases with education (36 percent of Americans with high school diplomas, 56 percent with four-year degrees, 61 percent with postgraduate degrees)
  • 63 percent of Americans cite a renewed sense of the value and importance of service to their community
  • 66 percent believe "true philanthropy" involves giving both time and money

Given these statistics and the considerable expertise and talents that many of your adult alumni have developed over their careers, inviting adults to volunteer may be your most effective strategy for engaging adults after commencement. "You have to give them real work to do," Fellows cautions. For example, look to your adult student alumni to serve in mentoring roles for current students or new graduates, or engage them in the context of a career network within their profession.


In this February 2011 article in Higher Ed Impact, we connected with Jim Langley, founder and president of Langley Innovations, and past vice president of advancement at Georgetown University, and asked for his advice on how advancement shops at colleges and universities can harness the power of alumni volunteerism.