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Want to improve your student philanthropy program? A new global survey reveals surprising trends and best practices.

By Andrew Paradise


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What should colleges and universities be doing to encourage students to become lifelong donors?

CASE and Campbell & Company, which have been supporting and innovating alongside development professionals for nearly eight decades combined, collaborated on a global study to find out. Conducted in January, the survey of development and alumni relations professionals at higher education institutions of every type—public and private, two- and four-year, large and small-uncovered some promising strategies in the critical but often neglected area of student philanthropy.

"We view this survey as the beginning of an important dialogue. Not enough emphasis has been placed on the value—and potential value—of student philanthropy programs," says Peter Fissinger, president and CEO of Campbell & Company in Chicago.

"We've only begun to examine whether and how we can help shape lifelong donors to colleges and universities," Fissinger adds. "We hope others join the conversation and help pursue additional research uncovering the best practices for investing in and monitoring student programs, and connecting these programs to strong alumni giving programs."

The survey sought to discover strategies for succeeding in this emerging area of emphasis: How are institutions focusing on student philanthropy? How much of a difference does additional investment and activity make? Who are the best campus allies for engaging students as lifelong donors, and what common messages do institutions use to engage students?

For a majority of the 211 institutions surveyed, investment in student philanthropy can be characterized by limited financial resources, minimal staffing, and lackluster efforts at student engagement. Few advancement professionals would consider this finding surprising, but other results from the survey suggest a silver lining: The research demonstrates that a program that has sufficient resources, engages key campus partners, uses strategic messaging, and is fine-tuned based on feedback from stakeholders can help students develop a sense of philanthropic engagement that endures.

The state of student philanthropy

How do institutions approach student philanthropy? More than two-thirds of the institutions surveyed for the CASE Student Philanthropy Study have a staff working group or a campus organization dedicated to student philanthropy, but 24 percent reported that efforts to engage students are sporadic (Fig. 1). And nearly one in 10 institutions had no activity in student philanthropy at all.

Despite their efforts, the majority of institutions have had lukewarm success engaging students. Only 13 percent of advancement professionals rated their institutions as having a high degree of success in engagement with students as lifelong donors (Fig. 2).

Most institutions invest little in student philanthropy. During the most recent fiscal year, nearly half the institutions surveyed allocated $2,500 or less to student philanthropy (Fig. 3). Only 30 percent dedicate more than $5,000 annually. Funding primarily originates, respondents report, from one of two sources: the development or alumni relations office, at 74 percent and 38 percent, respectively (Fig. 4).

ROI of student philanthropy

Securing funding can be difficult, but the survey data indicate that increased outlay on student philanthropy has a positive relationship with amounts raised and giving participation rates.

Average expenditure for student philanthropy was correlated with positive fundraising outcomes—the more an institution spends on student philanthropy per enrollee, the more effective the fundraising performance. Institutions that spent more than an average of 50 cents per enrolled student raised on average 250 percent more per person than institutions that spent less.

Additionally, a larger budget allocation to student philanthropy was significantly associated with higher student and alumni donor participation rates. Institutions that spent less than 50 cents per enrollee received gifts from just 2.8 percent of the student body in the past year, but institutions that spent more saw much higher participation rates: 10.9 percent of students gave. The pattern was similar for alumni donors: The difference in participation rates between high and low spenders was nearly 5 percentage points. In other words, institutions that invest more in student philanthropy on a per-student basis have higher rates of student and alumni donors compared to institutions that spend less per student.

These results, as well as others from the study, support the notion that more resources, programming, and integrated activity related to student giving can nurture philanthropic engagement among students, which in turn can create a foundation for future fundraising success.

Partnerships that pay

Development and alumni relations offices clearly assume the responsibility for student philanthropy at most institutions, but many potential partners on campus are available to support their efforts. Survey respondents reported relying on a variety of collaborators on campus, but few rose through the ranks to become full partners in engagement efforts. The most reliable partners: other students through peer-to-peer networking and student leadership groups (Fig. 5). The marketing and communications office also provides resources on a regular basis at the majority of institutions.

The correlational data suggest that partnerships with these three campus constituents can have a substantial impact: Institutions with high levels of collaboration also had significantly higher giving participation rates. Partnerships with students based on peer networking were associated with a donor participation rate that was 2.7 percentage points higher than institutions that do not take this approach. For collaboration with student leadership groups, the donor rate was 4.5 percentage points higher, and for the marketing and communications office, the donor rate was 4.7 percentage points higher.

According to the survey data, having students make the case for support to their peers, joining forces with student leadership, and collaborating with marketing/communications can help plant the seeds for philanthropic engagement.

These partnerships help spread vital messages about the importance of philanthropy. Collaborating with other campus groups also enable budget-constrained student philanthropy groups to put on effective programming. (For an example, see "The Friends that You Keep," below, about The Ohio State University Alumni Association's money-saving partnerships with campus constituents.)

In addition to exploring campus partnerships, responding institutions rely on a variety of messages to connect with students on philanthropy (Fig. 6). The two most frequently used messages: "Empower students by showing that they can make a difference through a gift of any size" and "educate about the impact of gifts across campus."

Nearly half the institutions surveyed continually convey these points, a strategy the analysis found to be significantly linked to positive fundraising outcomes. Specifically, institutions that consistently touched on empowerment and gift impact saw higher giving participation rates for both students and alumni—by 2.8 percentage points and 3.4 percentage points, respectively. (How well does the empowerment message work? See "Proud to Give," below. Kansas State University's student-run "K-State Proud" campaign is on its way to raising $1 million for student emergencies and has resulted in larger young alumni gifts.)

Many of the other messages used by responding institutions may help drive eventual engagement with philanthropy. Higher alumni donor rates were also correlated with greater usage of each of the following message types: demonstrate the limited impact of tuition on student experience through a tuition-free day; educate about institution's financial situation and needs in clear terms; philanthropy is an essential component of the institution's culture; philanthropy is a tradition at the institution; and school's rankings will likely improve with giving.

Assess for success

Finding the right balance for student philanthropy initiatives can be elusive for many advancement professionals. Although some activities and partnerships might appear to be a natural fit, effectiveness can vary widely.

Even measuring success might prove challenging. The survey results suggest that advancement professionals are still determining the right mix of evaluation methods (Fig. 7), which include tracking the number of student donors (76 percent of institutions use this technique), event attendance (69 percent), and the number of student volunteers (52 percent). These rudimentary techniques are necessary for informed benchmarking over time but do not necessarily allow for a deep understanding of effectiveness with engagement.

Assessment techniques that offer a more comprehensive understanding of progress with engaging students were correlated with better fundraising outcomes than the relatively basic measures that ranked at the top. Getting feedback from all types of stakeholders—administration leadership, students, and other campus constituents—was associated with an average increase of 2.5 percentage points in current student donor rates. Performing a thorough 360-degree assessment of the needs and experiences from key campus constituents can help inform strategy and thereby influence student philanthropic engagement.

Many of the findings from the CASE Student Philanthropy Study have similar conclusions: The more that you put into your student philanthropy effort, the more you get out of it. Increased organizational dedication to engaging students as donors through a variety of practices can lay the foundation for better long-term fundraising outcomes. Ample evidence indicates that students can contribute heavily to engagement efforts. It might be tempting to think that institutional leaders always know best, but the right students can drive everything from strategy to execution.

Determining the right mix of practices for building a foundation of lifelong engagement cannot happen without focus and dedication from many contributors on campus. There is now some evidence that all the effort is worthwhile.


This report was produced by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and underwritten by Campbell & Company as part of its ongoing effort to support excellence in fundraising in education. Want to know more? Check the CASE website this fall for a more in-depth analysis of student philanthropy best practices.

About the Author Paradise_Andrew_headshot Andrew Paradise

Andrew Paradise is a senior research specialist at CASE.

 

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