Future Support Starts with the
Student Experience

Amid the decline of state support for public institutions and a less forgiving fundraising climate (a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy study showed a 12% decline in giving for 2009, the sharpest drop in 50 years), ensuring the future financial health of your institution will require more intentional footwork in establishing a reliable pipeline of invested donors.

To develop a stronger donor pipeline, the key is to start earlier. However, institutions attempting to raise giving rates for young alumni are often rebuffed. In a study of the attitudes of young alumni conducted this 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 such reports 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, if not impossible, 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.

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 lifecycle. From the moment a new student receives an acceptance letter, that student needs to be invited to take pride in his or her future alma mater, and to consider their enrollment a membership in a lifetime community whose members share a critical mission and cause.

"In the undergraduate years, we have a tremendous opportunity to lay a strong foundation for a deeper appreciation of the institution, and a stronger affinity and emotional connection. 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."
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)
  • Invite students into open and transparent discussions of the financial challenges the campus faces

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.

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

Cultivating engagement and student philanthropy throughout the student-to-alumni lifecycle 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.

"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% to 42%, 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% more young alumni donors than last year at this time. Georgetown has also retained 25% of the members of the class of 2010 who made gifts as seniors last year.

Academic Impressions has conducted research on some of the most successful student philanthropy programs and has interviewed presidents and thought leaders in development, enrollment management, and student affairs to bring you the key strategies that will help you make your efforts effective.