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To Combat ‘Alumni Crisis,’ Institutions Must Reset Strategy

There's a crisis in annual giving, says Dan Allenby, and it's not about dwindling dollar amounts—it's about alumni.

"Annual giving programs are under increasing pressure to increase the number of donors, specifically to increase the overall alumni participation rate," says Allenby, associate vice president for annual giving at Boston University. "That's a big change in the industry."

For decades, alumni donor participation has been declining. To explain the phenomenon, Allenby starts with the Pareto principle: 80 percent of the outcomes (gifts) will likely come from 20 percent of the causes (donors). For many education institutions, that has shifted to "more like 90/10," he says, with staff members pouring more energy into major gifts. But he adds that empowering more alumni to give builds a broader, more diverse base of support that's more sustainable.

Allenby notes that the gift pyramid is shrinking for two main reasons. First, there are more alumni now than there ever were in the past. And second, Millennials—burdened by heavier student debt loads—are more reluctant to give. Their first choice for giving isn't typically their alma mater, and those who do give want to support specific departments, programs or groups.

What institutions have to do, says Allenby, is reset their alumni outreach strategy. His advice includes:

  • Explain philanthropy to students. Emphasize that support can involve giving not just money but also time and talent. Build partnerships with student life departments to get to know campus influencers, says Allenby. "If you empower them to understand these things, they're going to do a better job of communicating that message to others," he says.
  • Connect with young alumni before asking for a donation. Think about your first touch point, he says. Some institutions make a "care call" to ask young alumni to update their record or discuss their favorite professor.
  • Boost the value of the alumni association. Consider what perks alumni—particularly ones with student debt who graduated at the height of the recession—might want. Some institutions have created career newsletters or webinars to deliver valuable career insights to young alums.
  • Revamp donor stewardship. Find ways to recognize donors publicly for their support. Some institutions, says Allenby, ask for permission to tweet about an individual's support. More importantly, though, find ways to showcase the influence of gifts. Allenby says professionals will know that recognition efforts are working if donor retention rates—62 percent is the average—increase.

For more on bolstering alumni participation, purchase an archive of the CASE webinar on the topic.

This article is from the July 2015 issue of BriefCASE.