Engaging Future Donors While They Are
Still Students

Amid the decline of state support for public institutions and a less forgiving fundraising climate, establishing a more reliable pipeline of invested donors is critical -- and to develop a stronger donor pipeline, the key is to start earlier. Yet institutions attempting to raise giving rates for young alumni are often rebuffed. In a study of the attitudes of young alumni conducted last summer, the Engagement Strategies Group confirmed that the majority of young alumni are reluctant to give due to high tuition costs and a lack of understanding of how institutions of higher education are funded and how institutions do (and don't) draw on endowment spending to finance their needs.

Colleges and universities need to solicit more support from their former students, but what reports such as the Engagement Strategies Group survey demonstrate is that the best opportunity to create an ambassador for your institution is to cultivate them while they are still students on campus. It is more expensive and much more difficult for the development office to repair relationships after commencement. You can't remedy the student experience after the fact, and you can never fully recover the lost opportunity to get your students bought in, from the beginning, to the value your university contributes to their lives and to society.

"You have access to your incoming students. You have access to them for four years. That's the time to educate them as to how their institution is funded and invite their participation. Start when they come through the door, and spend four years working on awareness, appreciation, and giving."
Angelo Armenti, President, California University of Pennsylvania

Data on the success of early adopters of student philanthropy programs illustrates the impact of student giving on young alumni giving, and suggests the opportunity to realize substantial long-term gains by planting the right seeds in the minds and hearts of your students:

  • Between 2006 and 2009, the University of North Carolina increased participation in senior giving from 13 percent to 42 percent, and doubled the percentage of young alumni who were giving in their first few years after graduation.
  • During the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Georgetown University has seen 150 percent more young alumni donors than last year at this time. Georgetown has also retained 25 percent of the members of the class of 2010 who made gifts as seniors last year.

Beyond Institutional Advancement: Involving the Entire Campus

What's needed is a cross-campus initiative, led by the president, to ensure that a stellar student experience leads directly to stellar support from your alumni. Cultivating future donors effectively during their undergraduate years requires the combination of a well-delivered undergraduate experience and a student philanthropy program that educates students about the financial realities the institution faces and invites them to take ownership in their alma mater's future.

Truly laying the groundwork for long-term private support requires rethinking how your institution manages its relationship with students at all points in the student life cycle. From the moment a new student receives an acceptance letter, that student needs to be invited to take pride in their future alma mater, and to consider their enrollment a membership in a lifetime community whose members share a critical mission and cause.

"By treating students as stakeholders in the future success of the institution, we predispose them to be more understanding, engaged, and supportive of their alma mater. We err by treating them like kids. The more we treat them as adults and community members, the more they will feel a valued part of the enterprise. Entrust them with real responsibilities."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

The message that students are constituents in a relationship of mutual benefit and common cause needs to be conveyed throughout the student experience. To do this:

  • Audit the way you deliver services to your students, whether financial aid, campus safety, residence life, or career services (note inefficiencies and listen and respond to student concerns). If you want students to become ambassadors for your institution throughout their lives, you have to deliver for them. Often students grow disaffected or disillusioned with their alma mater, and graduate feeling that they were not heard or cared for, because of inefficiencies in campus services that could have been easily identified and remedied.
  • Invite students into open and transparent discussions of the financial challenges the campus faces (for example, through town hall settings).
  • Offer specific opportunities for students to take shared ownership of their future alma mater -- such as recruiting student ambassadors to interview alumni, creating a student foundation with real money to invest (use the return to fund student scholarships), or inviting students to assist in selecting visiting speakers or co-directing their residence halls.

Student Philanthropy: A Long-Term Strategy to Ensure Donor Support for Your Institution

Cultivating engagement and student philanthropy throughout the student-to-alumni life cycle represents a crucial strategy for ensuring your institution's long-term financial health, and it is critical to act now in order to cultivate the degree of giving that will allow your institution to remain competitive in future years.

Effective student philanthropy requires much more than a series of ad hoc initiatives -- it requires sustained engagement from convocation through to commencement. Here are three examples of efforts to consider:



Invite students to use their own resources and resourcefulness to educate their peers about private giving; Georgetown University has started a program in which two sophomores lead a team of 50 students (30 of which are in their first two years), who are each tasked with interveiwing five students each month. Not only does this approach leverage peer-to-peer interactions to raise awareness, it also builds the groundwork for a powerful prospect database at almost no cost. "Don't be afraid of letting students run such an effort," advises Ben Jarrett, assistant director of advancement at Georgetown. "You want them engaged, you want them to have responsibility, you want them to have a stake in the future of the institution."



Connect students with alumni as early as possible by leveraging alumni as mentors, by inviting alumni speakers to talk during the first pivotal six weeks of the freshman year, and by getting student representatives involved in the alumni association -- this both educates students about philanthropy and re-engages alumni as volunteers. Raj Bellani, associate provost and dean of students at the Rhode Island School of Design, remarks: "We have a wonderful base of alumni, this intellectual human resource lying in databases. We need to close the loop and engage them not just in career networking but in the leadership development of the next generation of students."



Run a senior campaign, not just a senior gift drive. Beth Braxton, director of annual giving at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests investing in a year-long campaign to raise awareness among seniors (and other classes) about the importance of giving. "Model your senior campaign after your annual fund campaign," Braxton advises. "Treat your students the same as alumni, and take the opportunity now to educate your future alumni about the campaign and to set the precedent."


In 2007, Academic Impressions researched the top student philanthropy programs in the United States and identified a student philanthropy model that highlights three core components shared by the most effective student philanthropy programs:



 AI Student Philanthropy Model

The Academic Impressions Student Philanthropy Model


This model provides a conceptual framework for rethinking the way you invite students into your long-term donor pipeline. A successful student philanthropy initiative needs to move your students toward three objectives:

  • Creating awareness: Do your students know how their education is funded? Do they understand the importance of private giving to their school?
  • Developing gratitude: Do your students express gratitude for the support they have received? Do your students feel grateful for the role of private support in their educational opportunities?
  • Cultivating giving: Have your students acted on their awareness and gratitude with a philanthropic gesture?


Our November 2011 issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic, entitled "Translating a Positive Student Experience into Lifetime Support for Your Institution," offers a comprehensive look at effective student engagement in philanthropy.