The Student-to-Alumni Transition: Are You Missing These Opportunities?

Students at a commencement ceremony

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 in 2010, 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 for the development office to build relationships after commencement.

Yet most institutions still treat student philanthropy and annual giving as separate programs, rendering the transition from student giver to alumni donor more problematic. To take a closer look at some of the missed opportunities, we turned this week to Elise Betz, executive director for alumni relations at the University of Pennsylvania, who heads up a key example of an integrated annual fund/student philanthropy approach.

“It is very short-sighted to not combine student philanthropy with a young alumni program that facilitates a natural student-to-alumni transition. While students are on your campus, you have the opportunity to educate them about their relationship with alumni relations now and in the future.”
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania

1. Use Student Philanthropy to Set Expectations

Penn changed the name of its senior gift drive to “Seniors for the Penn Fund,” and uses the drive as an opportunity to train seniors on what it means to interact with the annual fund. It’s an opportunity to educate students about how private gifts contribute to their education and to set the expectation that they will be asked to contribute financially to the institution’s future each year.

Student philanthropy, and the senior gift or senior campaign especially, are strategic opportunities to set these expectations. Yet too many colleges still focus on driving for dollars. “When your goal is to be able to report raising $6,300 from 1000 student donors,” Betz warns, “this feeds a reliance on gimmicky fundraising.” Tshirt-for-a-dollar student giving is a disservice to the institution, Betz adds, because it sets the wrong expectations.

Penn’s senior gift drive contributes directly to the annual fund, and the broader “Penn Traditions” program (a student philanthropy program jointly administered by alumni relations and annual giving) runs a series of awareness campaigns over the course of the year to educate students about annual giving. For example, one Penn Traditions brochure walks through a day in the life of a student, from visiting the dining hall to the gym to the classroom, and at each stage of the student’s day, the brochure notes which activities are funded in part through annual giving.


Our November 2010 report, “Translating a Positive Student Experience into Lifetime Support for Your Institution,” offers a holistic model for student philanthropy, one developed by Academic Impressions after a close study of student philanthropy programs across North America.

This monthly report makes the case that relying solely on your development office to garner support from young alumni is both more expensive and less effective than leveraging the efforts of each department that interacts with students during their time on campus. Students will build the capacity to give over time. The more strategic question is, “How do you build propensity to give?”

Defining a comprehensive student life cycle and being intentional about every touchpoint a student has before, during, and after their on-campus or online experience puts your institution in the best position for success when you ultimately make the ask.

Read more here.

2. Train Student Ambassadors

Each year, Betz’s shop holds an institute for “Penn Traditions” leaders. Student leaders from a variety of organizations — the student government, student clubs, greek organizations — are invited to this workshop.

“We talk with them about the future,” Betz comments. “They’ll graduate in two years. They’ll start to see communications from us. We set the expectation that we need them, as student leaders and later as alumni leaders, to go out into their community and serve as our ambassadors. The key is to communicate the urgency and the importance of these activities early, and to be explicit and direct in communicating that: ‘To continue the eminence of our institution, we need you to do these things.'”

These volunteer student ambassadors will give presentations to their various communities on campus — to their fraternity or their judy club, to the honors society or to their a capella group. They pass on the knowledge about how their education and the activities in which they engage are funded, and what the senior gift contribution to the annual fund will contribute to. “They know where the money is going,” Betz remarks, “and they know that it affects every student.”

3. A Consistent Brand

“One of the things we have found especially helpful is consistent branding across student philanthropy and young alumni outreach: a similar look and feel, similar messaging, and logos that reflect each other.”
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania

Penn’s student philanthropy program is branded “Penn Traditions”; their young alumni program is branded “yPenn: The Tradition Continues.” Betz notes, “Young alumni receiving yPenn communications recognize the logo. If they engaged in Penn Traditions as a student, then they will remember that engagement when they receive our messages as young alumni.”

4. A Consistent Commitment

“The importance of young alumni to our institution and the importance of our outreach to them has to be recognized by senior leaders. This can’t just be one fifth of one person’s job; to be successful, young alumni outreach has to be a priority for the institution. The president, senior administrators, trustees — the senior leadership of the institution needs to make it a priority to reach out to the young alumni today who will be the major donors tomorrow.”
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania

Betz offers this example: When top officials are traveling and holding events for major donors, ensure that young alumni are extended the same invitation and the same access to these events. This provides informal opportunities for institutional leaders and older alumni to model their relationship for young alumni and communicates to young alumni that they are valued by the institution and that they are part of a large and significant community. This reinforces the messages that you will have delivered to them when they were students and that you continue to deliver as they transition into the donor pipeline.

5. A Two-Way Relationship

Remember that you will only be able to cultivate alumni as ambassadors for your institution if your institution is also serving as an ambassador for them. Your alumni career services and other services need to be robust and responsive to alumni needs, and you need to start communicating — while your future alumni are still students — about the services and opportunities they will have available to them as alumni. This has to be part of one coherent conversation: what you expect of them, and what they can expect of you.

Here are some examples of how Penn sets this expectation for students and young alumni:

  • Twice a year, Penn holds an alumni relations resource fair for students to attend. The fair highlights career services, alumni communities, and other resources. Representatives from specific graduate schools at Penn also attend, to discuss opportunities related to their schools.
  • The website for young alumni and the Facebook page are focused around opportunities and services that young alumni can take advantage of
  • Each January, Penn sends out a “Top 10” list through email and social media, promoting ten services that offer ways for alumni to stay connected with the institution and to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits

“Most importantly, give students and alumni access to each other. Your alumni need to feel connected with the institution and its future, and your students need to feel connected with a larger, lifetime community.”
Elise Betz, U of Pennsylvania