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Cultivating Young Sprouts

To nurture Millennials into donors, plant seeds from Day 1

By Robert Fleming , Greg Bader , Ilaria Pesco

Anyone working with undergraduates knows how difficult it can be to gain their full attention, let alone their financial support.

In recent years, many senior gift programs have waned, and young alumni participation has decreased, causing advancement staffs to become more frustrated. Having been in both advancement and student affairs, we're convinced the problems don't stem from the makeup of senior gift committees or the way they (politely) coerce their peers to give. The situation also can't be blamed on institution priorities, limited staff, or postal rate increases. The fault, we believe, lies in the way many advancement professionals approach undergraduate cultivation.

Student affairs literature often touts the benefits of community service, service learning, and volunteer civic engagement to model the importance of giving. Campus cultures teach and reinforce the message that you give back by volunteering your time, but that message omits the importance of philanthropy--at least until the concept of annual giving appears during senior year. That is too late for many students. By then, fund raising is almost considered a dirty term. Just ask undergraduates.

As advancement professionals, we need to correct students' negative perception of fund raising if we want future campaigns to succeed, and we need partners in generating a new perception.

A new crop: the Millennials

Beginning with the graduating Class of 2000, a new generation of students, the Millennials, is filling campuses. It's vital to understand this next generation of donors and respond accordingly. In Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss describe the Millennials as a group "unlike any other youth generation in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse." Howe and Strauss determined that the Millennials have distinct characteristics that set them apart from other generations. They are

  • special
  • sheltered
  • confident
  • team-oriented
  • conventional
  • pressured
  • achieving.

Millennials are arriving on campuses with a strong sense of engagement and looking for ways to serve the community. They want to connect to something larger than themselves. We need to capitalize on their desire and get them involved in fund-raising efforts while they're still undergraduates.

Many of our colleagues have phenomenal cultivation and education programs we can model.

Penn State launched the Student Philanthropy Council in 2005 to create awareness of the importance of philanthropy for society. The council is governed by seven students who receive ample training on the need for development work and its role in advancement. They then plan seminars and awareness events with fund-raising themes such as annual fund principles and planned giving. The council also educates students on the need to support the institution's philanthropy.

Using an internal assessment, advancement staff at Dartmouth College found its students were philanthropic but not inclined to give to their institution. To address that disconnect, the college launched several initiatives, including an awareness program for the senior class gift campaign and training workshops for student organizations.

A Dartmouth leadership summit gives 30 sophomores the opportunity to interact with senior leaders at the college. At the summit, students address issues such as competing institution priorities, funding for faculty initiatives, course content, and the perception of overcrowding on campus. The fund's associate director, Nariah Broadus, says, "My goal is to provide the information to our students to make an informed decision on whether or not to make a gift to their alma mater. We need to treat them as investors."

Georgia Tech has a foundation governed by a 20-member student board of trustees and established by an alumnus gift in 1986 for that purpose. Students serve on three subcommittees that manage the foundation's $600,000-plus investment portfolio; they raise additional funds from other students to increase the endowment. They also distribute funds to student organizations through an application process. The alumni association, in collaboration with multiple departments, monitors and guides this undergraduate cultivation.

Emma Willard School, a girls' boarding school, developed the Phila charitable foundation program in fall 2003. For three years, a trustee and her husband made gifts to create a fund administered by the students involved in Phila. Each year, the students identify Phila's funding priorities and send a request for proposals to local nonprofits whose activities match those priorities. The students review the proposals and choose several finalists. They then make site visits and select the grant recipients. This year, students plan to raise additional funds for the program. Sometimes students just wanting to get involved inadvertently find their way to development and alumni offices.

Two years ago at Denison University, several students who were part of the school's recycling program visited Lyn Boone, director of foundation and corporate relations, to seek guidance in writing a grant to build what is now the Denison Recycling Center. The students conferred with local governments and the university on the logistics of how a recycling center works and gained community support. The students' collective fund-raising efforts resulted in $39,000.

"Working with students on the recycling project was a genuinely rewarding experience for me," says Boone, "and the students themselves have told me how educational it was for them. They learned all about the process, protocol, and hard work of writing a grant proposal."

In addition, special-interest clubs on campus or business classes can partner with advancement to benefit the institution, as well as increase students' understanding of the value and importance of philanthropy. And student engagement should always be considered when planning direct-mail programs, capital campaigns, grant proposals, and special events.

Each of those programs demonstrates that creating opportunities for involvement is crucial in cultivating students' philanthropic support of their institutions. As educators, we know most people learn more easily through experience and example. If we want students to become philanthropists, we need to provide examples of alumni donors and experiences that students can have before graduation. That requires partnership and collaboration with student affairs professionals to create philanthropic opportunities beyond typical senior gift efforts.

Working with the alumni association

The alumni association at University of California, Berkeley provides philanthropic examples for students. Alumni volunteers help select scholarship recipients, visit students in their residence halls, and speak to seniors about transition after graduation.

University of Redlands is another example of an alumni association and student affairs partnership--in this instance to create "Alumni for Greeks," which brings together Greek-affiliated alumni and undergraduates twice yearly. The event enables students to see alumni giving back to the institution with their time and a financial contribution. Volunteer alumni pay dues toward Greek retreats, seminars, speakers, training materials, and so forth. Greek alumni are also invited to speak at campus fraternity and sorority meetings and conferences.

Occasionally students ask alumni why they donate when they aren't getting a building named after them or similar recognition. James Benanti, Class of 1999 and an annual donor, says, "It's up to each and every one of us to give back to Redlands no matter how big or small the gift. My gift makes sure you're able to have just as great an experience as I did in college, and someday it will be your turn to give back."

We believe interactions between giving alumni and students can have more influence on the latter's future giving behavior than lone efforts by the development office or student affairs.

Miracle grow

Despite what we have said so far, involving students or providing unstructured student-alumni contact isn't enough to engender philanthropic behavior. Many campuses have interaction opportunities, but we also need to evaluate the types of alumni that institutions recruit to fill mentor roles, and we need to evaluate the messages students receive.

Are speaking opportunities at your campus leadership conferences open to all alumni? Do you extend special invitations to leadership-level annual donors or donors who fund endowed scholarships? Are alumni volunteers, regardless of their function, encouraged to comment on the philanthropic relationship with their alma mater? Do the alumni who conduct mock interviews during Career Week ask students about their views on philanthropy? They should.

Too often campuses have the programs and opportunities, but effective communication doesn't occur among development, alumni relations, and student affairs offices.

"A successful young-alumni-giving program truly begins freshman year," says Rob Henry, executive director of emerging constituencies for CASE and former director of individual giving at Yale University School of Management. Henry, who's writing a book on students and young alumni, recommends collaborating with student affairs professionals to cultivate students from the moment they arrive on campus. "We should be teaching freshmen and sophomores to give with their time and juniors to give with their involvement and mentorship," he says. "It's a natural cultivation to then ask seniors to give financially and share with others the impact their gifts make."

When seniors and alumni constantly reinforce a philanthropic message to younger students, institutions reap the financial benefit. But such reinforcement can't be haphazard. It must be strategic.

Strategic steps

Below are first steps toward cultivating a stronger relationship between your advancement office and student affairs department. The goal should be to involve donors and send a philanthropic message to all undergraduates during their time on campus. You'll also reap the rewards of enhanced collaboration and partnership with campus colleagues.

  • Meet with career services professionals on your campus to learn how they're helping students make the transition into the workforce, whether they have alumni outreach opportunities, and what the process is for soliciting internships. Discuss becoming partners to help recruit alumni and to craft the purpose and message of such opportunities.
  • Schedule a meeting with the student affairs office to find out about leadership programs and class steering committees. Discuss establishing class gifts at all class levels to encourage and foster a culture of philanthropic giving from Day 1 on campus. Or, involve all classes in a collective gift.
  • Create a "student engagement" committee on your alumni board to exemplify the philanthropic spirit for undergraduates. Many campuses have a community service director in charge of undergraduate service-learning opportunities. Meet to discuss any philanthropic activities on campus, and offer to help develop a program to supplement current senior gift programs.
  • Offer workshops to student organizations on topics such as fund raising, fiscal management, and communicating with alumni. Present the university's finances and operational budget to business or investment clubs. Have them observe an investment committee meeting of the board of trustees.
  • Discuss the institution programs in this article at your next staff meeting. What student-focused innovations could your office create in partnership with student affairs to help demonstrate the philanthropic spirit to undergraduates?
Reaping the legacy

Most importantly, we must remember that students often lament that their "small" charitable contributions, and their parents' typically larger gifts, don't make a difference. It has been reported widely that Harvard 2002 graduate Ernot Wagner, when asked by his alma mater to give, said, "If you give one dollar to sub-Saharan Africa, it can save a life. One dollar to Harvard is 10 more staples."

Many students wholeheartedly believe their financial contributions to their alma maters won't make a significant difference and that their dollars can make a larger impact elsewhere. As advancement professionals we need to communicate the importance of all gifts, but how? A traditional response is something tangible, such as a plaque or bench, to symbolize the importance of the gift. Although that provides recognition, we can use only so many plaques and benches.

Some advancement professionals think the symbolic gift of $20.06 by the Class of 2006 introduces students to giving. That may ring true on some campuses, but our experience is that symbolic gifts alone fail to convey the importance of giving. Rather, we need to teach students about the impact of a donation in terms they can understand, relate to, and value.

CARE, Doctors Without Borders, and similar organizations are successful because the donations they receive have an impact. A $50 gift to CARE buys a nourishing meal for 178 hungry children. A $1,000 gift to Doctors Without Borders provides a month of emergency medical supplies to 5,000 disaster victims. What impact would $20.06 have on your institution? Relating a gift's purpose doesn't necessarily send the message that it's important. We need to stretch further to create a legacy.

For the University of Redlands centennial celebration, undergraduates proposed raising funds to help purchase 100 orange trees to be planted along the campus border. These donations will result in an environmental campus beautification project and provide future students with the opportunity to take part in the local agricultural tradition, plus free oranges for campus denizens.

The collective power of thousands of students supporting a common cause perceived as valuable and long lasting carries more weight than any single major gift in creating a legacy. We know Millennials want to be part of something larger than themselves. We know they want to create a legacy with true and lasting impact. So let's not forget the value, meaning, and impact a philanthropic gift must have for this new generation of donors--along with our usual business of encouraging giving and building endowments.

We must take stock of the initiatives and student programming opportunities under way and build on our strengths to model and foster philanthropic learning. Engaging undergraduates and student affairs colleagues in philanthropy can be challenging yet rewarding. With good communication and strategic partnerships, we can help select the alumni volunteers best able to plant philanthropic seeds throughout a student's undergraduate career, so they will harvest a legacy of giving. The results will be higher senior gift totals, larger future investments in our institutions, productive partnerships with student affairs professionals, and educated philanthropists.

About the Authors Robert Fleming Robert Fleming

Robert has been director of development at the University of St Andrews since August 2012, and completed the "600th Anniversary Campaign" to raise £100m in 2018. Previously, he was director of development at Glasgow Caledonian University, and vice president with GG+A Europe, with clients including the University of Warwick, University of Bristol, Lancaster University and Save the Children UK. He was previously director of development at the University of Edinburgh, and from 2000 until 2005 was director of development for Trinity College of Music, London. Earlier in his career Fleming held roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company (as head of sponsorship development) and at the City of London Festival. He has served on the board of trustees of a number of arts organizations including Making Music and the Scottish Ensemble, and was on the CASE Commission for Philanthropy 2014-2017.

Fleming holds an MA Hons in politics and management studies from the University of Glasgow and a postgraduate diploma in arts administration from City University London.

Greg Bader
Greg Bader is assistant director of the annual fund at Denison University.Ilaria Pesco

Ilaria Pesco is director of the Student Leadership & Involvement Center at University of Redlands.




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