More than Dollars: How Many Opportunities are You Missing with Your Alumni?

Plant growing

Series: Creating the Conditions for Support

Everyone is trying to raise more money. Rather than simply suggest the next tactic that can boost giving in the short-term, this series offers a more intensive look at the strategic thinking that drives philanthropic support: Why do donors give? How do institutions strengthen their core and emphasize initiatives worthy of support? How do we align strategic plans, strengths, and advancement strategy to create the conditions for ongoing and sustained support? In this series, distinguished current and past chief advancement officers apply their most innovative and creative thinking to this question.

Also in this series:
Why Donors Give: It’s Not What You Think
Engaging Women in Philanthropy: Practical Ways to Shift Our Approach
Checklist: Questions the Governing Board Must Ask Before Launching a Campaign

If Congress passed a law tomorrow making fundraising illegal, would you still care about your alumni?

I asked this question to alumni directors and chief advancement officers across the country as part of a research project in 2011. Over the last 75 years, colleges and universities have communicated to alumni almost singularly that the most important thing they can do to support their alma mater is give money. But increasingly, this single focus fosters a situation in which many of our alumni remain unengaged. Illustrating this point, here is a remark I heard once from a colleague:

“Of the students I teach, only 5% will be alumni who are of any interest to you. The problem is that when I have them in class, I never know who will turn into the 5%.”
– A faculty member

The assumption in the statement is that the advancement office only shows enthusiasm for alumni who become wealthy. Our jobs focus on raising money and through it, creating opportunity for students, faculty, and our communities. The 5% group can make those opportunities real.

But is this all we seek from our graduates?

The Untapped Assets of Our Alumni

Letting go of or ignoring the other 95% – whoever they turn out to be – doesn’t feel right. Or smart. Surely many alumni have the capacity and willingness to help make their college or university appreciably better for today’s students; they just can’t always do so by writing a check. In fact, even those who do write their alma mater a check remain virtually untapped resources.

“My alma mater thinks I’m only interested in school spirit. Sadly, they won’t get to me because the basketball team is winning. But the minute they ask me to share my professional experiences with students, I’m in.”
– A colleague

This isn’t a random frustration.  Alumni everywhere express it. We need to tap into the enormous reservoir of non-monetary assets that graduates are willing and waiting to give. We need to ask alumni for a broader array of contributions that deliver consequential results. And we need to realize that these results are valuable enough on their own to pursue, because for many alumni, the non-monetary contribution is the most meaningful one they will ever be able to make.

Here’s an example: A high school teacher can be a powerful recruitment voice for the college that he attended. So let’s incentivize him to be on the lookout for great students he sees every day and whom he believes would be a good fit for the college and vice versa. His encouragement will lead students to apply and enroll, and we may get a lot of them over time. That same high school teacher may never have the capacity to write a check for more than $250. Yet if we consider his work in connecting new students to his alma mater as a revenue stream — which could total hundreds of thousands or even millions of tuition dollars — isn’t that a better and more accurate reflection of what his contributions are?

If we approach alumni in this way, we discover opportunities to harness the experience and brainpower to advance the institution’s broader objectives: enrollment, persistence, student leadership, and career preparation to name a few. Another thing: we’re also likely to increase alumni giving. This is pursuing the long game, and to do it well, we need to convince executive and fiduciary leadership to invest resources in increasing non-monetary alumni participation.

Making the Case to the President and Board

I bet you have heard your graduates say this: “The only time I ever hear from the college is when you want money…” Hold that thought.

A few years ago, the advancement team at a Canadian university conducted a study that suggested the best ratio of non-fundraising to fundraising communications with alumni is about 9:1. When I shared this with my president, his response was, “I think we do that.” To make the point, he named our alumni magazine, our e-newsletters, event invitations, the Homecoming announcement, and other examples. He got to nine.

I couldn’t argue that, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about that statement from our graduates. Eventually, I paraphrased the statement like this: “The only time the college ever asks me for anything is when they ask me for money.” When we applied the 9:1 test to that statement, we failed to meet the ratio. While we sent many communications to alumni, we did not frequently ask them for much of anything other than a check. We invite them to events, we inform them of campus happenings, but we don’t ask for their help and expertise. And we certainly don’t ask with clarity or urgency.

A Portfolio of “Asks”
The case I began to make to my president and trustees was this: In an environment where alumni gift participation had fallen consistently, we needed to re-visit our core assumptions and activities. Instead of a singular request for money, we should be developing a portfolio of “asks” to probe all the places where alumni may have the capacity to contribute to the institution’s future and make a difference.

Some presidents – and even some advancement VPs – may question the value of a more holistic approach. Fundraising is easier to measure, and the president often has a direct impact on results. And, of course, gift revenue is vitally important. All of this contributes to the focus on dollars raised in our metrics.

But for many institutions, alumni have far greater value to offer that isn’t tied to the size of the check they can write. Instead, it’s tied to their lived experiences, the talents they’ve acquired, and their strong inclination to pass along what they know. It is a desire to build the institution, its students, and the next generation. It is their most powerful legacy.

The president who sees the upside in that and is willing to prioritize and communicate that belief in the total value alumni have to bring will hold the best key to the institution’s future.

A Word About Metrics
If you care about it, measure it. 2 years ago at Susquehanna, we developed a new key performance indicator on alumni participation that includes fundraising (# of givers) and also includes other participation via career, recruitment, service, and advocacy, which we deem to have institutional value. For example, SU’s alumni gift participation in 2014-15 was around 10%, and overall alumni participation was 21%. Knowing that, we can set specific targets around both of those measures and resource efforts accordingly.

Don’t Leave Opportunities on the Table

Institutions will define the specific value of more holistic alumni engagement differently. The important thing is to start to unpack what that value could be – and also to eliminate what won’t be as valuable. Don’t try to do it all at once. Get your leadership on board and establish more nuanced alumni participation metrics.

Then, open up a dialogue with one or two senior colleagues that begins with you asking: “Would you be willing to sit down and share with me 2 or 3 ways in which you think alumni might help advance your program? One way can be fundraising-based, but I’d also love to hear 1 or 2 that aren’t about fundraising…” Find out what ideas they have, share your own, and get started. In an upcoming article, I’ll discuss ways to engage colleagues across the institution in this effort.