The Student-Alumni Transition: Encouraging Meaningful Giving

Just as it is important not to miss the opportunity of inviting students into a lifetime relationship with the institution at convocation or during orientation, it's also critical to manage the opportunity presented by the students' transition out of their undergraduate years. Many institutions miss the chance to educate students about the real role of private giving in the institution's financial health and set the wrong expectations for their future alumni by relying on gimmicks to improve senior gift participation rates.

What Doesn't Work

For example, here are three tactics that, while they may help drive up senior gift participation rates, also damage your ability to engage the seniors effectively as alumni later:

  • Treating the gift as a "quid pro quo" by offering a t-shirt, tickets to an athletic event, or a university coffee mug to students who give -- this sets the expectation that when your future young alumni give to the institution, they receive something tangible in return
  • Asking that every student give one dollar -- when the gift ceases to be meaningful, you gain participation rate at the expense of your renewal rate
  • "Shaming" seniors into giving by publishing the names of students who do not participate in the gift drive (groups at Dartmouth College and Cornell University recently adopted this tactic) -- in pressuring students to give rather than educating them about why they should, you run the significant risk of alienating your future alumni

What these three approaches share in common is that they are each focused on driving up participation in a one-time gift. We recently interviewed Beth Braxton, director of annual giving at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who offers an alternative approach -- investing in a year-long campaign to raise awareness among seniors (and other classes) about the importance of private giving. With its focus on cultivating awareness, gratitude, and meaningful giving, the University of North Carolina's program is a key example of the student philanthropy model.

Run a Senior Campaign -- Not Just a "Senior Gift"

Braxton suggests starting by shifting focus away from a "senior gift" solicited during senior week and toward a year-long senior campaign.

"Model your senior campaign based on the way you do your annual fund campaign. Take the opportunity now to educate your future alumni about the campaign and to set the precedent. Otherwise you will have to educate them next year, and it is hard enough just to find them next year."
Beth Braxton, U of North Carolina

Where a one-time senior gift leaves the impression of a "sign-off" (having given their one-time gift, the student may see no need to give in the future), a year-long senior campaign allows you to educate students about their transition to young alumni and set expectations for how their alma mater will communicate with them in the future.

"Treat them as much like an alumnus as possible," Braxton advises. "If you send direct mail to your alumni, every once in a while send them some, too. Include them in phonathon. Get them used to getting a call or an email from you."

At the same time, continue to educate them about the institution's budget and funding realities, and invite them throughout the year to take ownership in their alma mater and responsibility in the institution's future.

Braxton also recommends:

  • Find a challenge donor for your senior campaign -- this adds momentum and may give you a more concrete marketing message for the campaign (one way to convey to your seniors that their $20 is meaningful is to let them know that if you get a certain number of people to contribute $20, the donor will add an additional $20,000 for the lacrosse team, or computer science, or some other specific area on campus)
  • If the challenge donor isn't an anonymous donor, invite them to visit the campus and speak with students
  • Allow students to track progress toward the senior campaign goal online
  • Find ways to thank your student givers, just as you would thank your first-time alumni givers

"Treat your students the same as alumni. Offer them a handwritten thank you, not just an email. If you have a student who gave a $250 gift, invite them to that chancellor's reception, where they can sit alongside other donors. Plant the seeds for the next 20, 30 years. This is a long-term investment."
Beth Braxton, U of North Carolina

Finally, hold activities throughout the year to raise awareness of the senior campaign. If your institution is public, then besides just offering one tuition freedom day (marking the date when tuition ceases to cover the cost of education for that year), you could offer several days, one to mark when tuition runs out, another to mark when all funding sources (tuition, fees, state support, etc.) other than private giving run out.

During a Capital Campaign

Braxton notes that encouraging senior giving during a major fundraising campaign for the institution raises its own challenges. For example, you might frequently hear the following response from students upon receiving the ask: "Why do you need my $25 gift, if you just received a $25,000 gift?"

However, a campaign might also represent a unique opportunity to raise awareness of why lifetime giving to the institution is important. Relay the campaign message not just to your alumni but to your students, too. Use the opportunity to educate the students about the endowment, restricted vs. unrestricted giving, tax deductibility, and your institution's funding model. Let students know why the school can't just "take the endowment" and use it to plug all the gaps in the institution's budget. Be mindful that in a year or two, these students will be young alumni themselves, and they may receive the ask for this same campaign. Educating them about the importance of the campaign now will save time and money later and will give greater return in your young alumni giving rate.

In support of its billion-dollar "Proudly Cincinnati" campaign, the University of Cincinnati also launched a sister campaign specifically for students: a "Proudly Pennies" campaign with the fundraising goal of one billion pennies.

Beyond the Traditional Senior Committee

Braxton recommends taking a step beyond the traditional senior giving committee and fostering the development of a full, student-run philanthropic society:

  • Invite not only seniors, but also juniors and underclassmen
  • Recruit members from different affinity groups (athletics, arts, Greek life, etc.)
  • Establish name recognition across campus
  • Train members to give presentations to different groups on campus, and ensure that these presentations raise awareness of how the institution is funded; it's important that the presentations are not just about an ask

Heelraisers hosts presentations and events across campus, manages the senior campaign, and maintains a website that swiftly answers FAQs about university funding and private giving (and includes a convenient pie chart documenting the University of North Carolina's funding sources). Active members frequently become active members in the institution's alumni council later.

The 1634 Society manages both the senior campaign and a series of events aimed at connecting students and alumni; the leadership committee is composed of undergraduates from each undergraduate school and each class year. The office of advancement serves an advisory role.

To guide the society's efforts, start by surveying your student population, and then task your student philanthropic society with devising a strategy for educating their peers on campus:

  • Learn what specific misconceptions students have about the institution's funding, and design programming to address those misconceptions
  • Find out what students think about the institution and how it has contributed to their lives
  • Find out what key interests students have
  • Find out how much of your student body reads the student newspaper, and more generally, learn what venues will be best for marketing to them

Also, Braxton suggests ensuring that the society's leadership meets with the senior class president and vice president when they are first elected -- before they leave for the summer -- to ensure that they understand the goals of the following year's senior giving campaign.