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Never Say Never

Is courting never-givers an exercise in futility?

By Debbie Goldberg

Last year, Westminster College's development office set a lofty goal: to reach an all-time high of 34 percent alumni participation in the annual fund. By late spring, participation had stalled at 32.5 percent, and development officers started brainstorming a last-minute campaign that might put them over the top. The result: an e-mail blitz from President Fletcher Lamkin for two weeks in June asking alumni who had not yet given to help the campus meet its fund-raising goal.

Of those 1,600 e-mails, Westminster received 150 responses, raising an additional $4,500 and bringing participation to 35.5 percent. Remarkably, 26 percent of those donors were alumni who had never before given to the college.

Vice President for Institutional Advancement Dan Diedriech says the campaign was successful because it came from the president, requested a modest gift of $10, and allowed donors to pledge online and by telephone or mail. The college now is spending $2,500 to clean up its database and obtain good e-mail addresses for 5,000 more of its 7,500 alumni.

Like Westminster, many institutions are looking for new ways to convince never-givers to open their wallets. Whether these constituents are recent graduates still getting on their feet financially or hard-core nongivers who have been out of school for 15 years or more, the fundamental question is whether "the approach [you're using] is not working or simply that these people are not going to give no matter what you do," says Shaun Keister, assistant vice president for development at the Iowa State University Foundation. The answer depends on why your never-givers don't give, the methods you're using to reach them, and the depth of resources you can draw from to continue the pursuit.

Why ask why?

Who are these never-givers and why don't they support alma mater?

In 2000, Adrian Sargeant, professor of nonprofit marketing at the University of the West of England, surveyed lapsed donors to 10 large U.S. charities to determine why they stopped giving. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they could no longer afford to give; another 36 percent said they found more deserving causes.

Although such information is enlightening, Sargeant says alumni who give to alma mater differ in significant ways from donors who give to charitable causes. Because they tend to be better educated—and thus, better compensated—fewer alumni probably would say they can't afford to give, and more are likely to say they have other giving priorities.

Tricks of the trade

Rather than give up on never-givers, Keister believes institutions need to develop better strategies to reach them. Experts offer the following tips:

Target the ask. Identify what graduates care about enough to support. "Not many donors respond to unrestricted giving appeals anymore," Keister says. "Instead, we ask, 'What do you care about?' or 'What was your favorite thing about this institution?' If a donor says no to an unrestricted gift, next year I might ask for [a gift for] the library and maybe for his or her department [after that]. If someone doesn't give, I figure I haven't asked for the right thing yet."

This point was driven home five years ago when Iowa State solicited its black nondonors to support a renovation of the university's Black Cultural Center. The result: a 33 percent response rate and an average gift of $150.

Segment the never-givers and focus on those who share characteristics with givers. Some never-givers are more likely than others to give. The challenge is identifying the factors that matter to alumni and segmenting the nongiver population accordingly. Rick Christ, a fund-raising consultant and president of, suggests that institutions identify several factors that affect alumni giving, such as gender, geographic distance from the campus, and year graduated. "Some groups have more life in them than others," he says. "The trick is to carve the group into pieces that are actionable."

Once those prospects are identified, development officers should "mail [to them] harder," says Jill Minsky Pike, director of sales and account management at Target Analysis Group, a consultancy that specializes in predictive modeling based on institutional data.

For example, "We know those who were in student government are more likely to give than someone who never participated in campus extracurricular activities," she says. Thus, a solicitation to former campus leaders who have never given might be more cost-effective than a blanket solicitation to all never-givers.

Get alumni involved. Alumni often say one of the main reasons they don't contribute is that they do not feel connected to the institution. "Annual giving is not about affordability—it's about affinity," says Brian Kish, senior development director at the University of California, Irvine. "You will maximize the prospect's giving potential by identifying what they want to give to—not what you want them to give to."

Even if students graduated with less-than-positive feelings about their experience, institutions might still be able to bond with them. "Send updates, ask what they think, involve them in some way," advises Erica Waasdorp, vice president of DMW, a direct marketing agency that specializes in direct response strategy and execution for nonprofits. "Once involved, they eventually will give."

Try new approaches. Recognizing that their target audience is multicultural, UCI fund raisers have begun using native speakers of Spanish and Farsi to solicit foreign-born parents of students.

Monthly payment plans—where an amount automatically is debited from a bank account or credit card with minimum monthly payments as low as $5—also might jump-start an appeal. "Even if a donor says his finances are strapped, [he might be able] to afford $10 a month," Waasdorp says. Donors enrolled in this type of plan tend to give for longer periods of time—increasing their lifetime value—and upgrade to higher amounts more easily than those who write checks once a year.

If you love them, set them free?

Is it ever wise to write off never-givers? Education institution fund raisers seldom abandon them entirely; they simply send fewer mailings, suspend more expensive solicitations such as phone calls, and concentrate on special occasions such as reunions.

"Three factors should drive the decision to allocate resources to [soliciting] never-givers: the size of the alumni pool, the stage of the advancement program, and the resources available," says Fritz Schroeder, executive director of development and alumni relations at Johns Hopkins University and author of the CASE book Annual Giving: A Practical Approach. If a campus's annual fund campaign is young and in a high-growth phase, then aggressively going after nondonors is a must, he says. The drawback is that never-givers "are clearly the most expensive group to solicit in terms of net return on the dollar."

Schroeder says that Hopkins contacts never-givers up to three times annually; between 5 percent and 10 percent of them eventually give. "If we managed annual giving campaigns with 30-year outlooks, it would make sense to the institution to grow the base by continuously soliciting never-givers, but we must balance a long-term view with the need to meet annual goals from a dollar perspective," he says. That means bringing in more than you spend.

Other experts say institutions must eventually stop trying to breathe life into their never-givers. Christ, for example, graduated 25 years ago and hasn't given his alma mater a dime since. "I'm an example of wasted money," he says. "There's no emotional connection between me and the university, so I apply my resources where they do the most good in my family life."

Think of it this way: "If I spend $25 over 25 years soliciting you, and you give me $10, your lifetime value is negative $15," he says. "All donors are negative at first, but at some point, it has to swing positive. It all comes down to return on investment."

Minsky Pike, meanwhile, believes any gift from a never-giver is a success, even if it's $20 after years of solicitations. "If they are engaged enough to make a gift, hopefully they'll continue to give," she says.

Diedriech also is bullish about targeting never-givers, noting that without their support, Westminster would not have been able to increase its annual giving participation rate from 17 percent in 1999 to 35 percent in 2003 and its gifts from $700,000 to $1.2 million.

Hoping for a miracle?

Some fund raisers are reluctant to give up on never-givers because they are hoping for the elusive major gift from a lifelong never-giver. While rare, it does happen. Alissa Comella, former annual giving director at Ohio Wesleyan University and now annual giving director at Ohio State University, says that one never-giver contributed $40,000 to Ohio Wesleyan while attending his 50-year class reunion.

Elsewhere, a never-giver announced last September that he wished to leave his estate—valued at $1.3 million—to Bluffton College. The alumnus, who wished to remain anonymous, had no family and, according to Vice President for Institutional Advancement Stanley Clemens, wanted to reward the institution that had taken "good care" of him. The donor died just a few days later.

"The trick is deciding how much to invest [in encouraging] older people to give, knowing that they can make larger gifts, but also that the more time that has gone by, the more apathy they feel for the institution," says Bob Burdenski, a consultant and author of the CASE book Innovations in Annual Giving: Ten Departures that Worked. The key, he adds, is finding a hook that can draw them into the fold—and keep them there.


About the Author Debbie Goldberg

Debbie Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.




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