YOU CANNOT IGNORE YOUR YOUNG ALUMNI!!!
Do I have your attention??? Good. I wanted to start this post off with a bang. I’ve engaged in a few discussions lately, some in person and many on LinkedIn, about how to approach young alumni fundraising. The opinions are varied, but I’d like to share mine here.
[Disclaimer: Although this post will focus on – and use the language of – educational fundraising, I know that young individuals are an important demographic for all of us fundraisers. So, I hope regardless of what kind of organization you fundraise for, that you can find some helpful information here.]
I’m going to start with the obvious: why do alumni give? Say it with me now: because they are asked. There are of course myriad reasons why, but that one has always been #1. How can alumni give if they’re not asked??? The same goes for young alumni. If they aren’t given the opportunity to donate to their alma mater, they very well may not.
There’s also the idea of planting the seed. To create a culture of philanthropic giving in your institution, you have to begin educating your alumni on the importance of giving early on… in fact, ideally they’re not even alumni yet when you begin this process; they should be students. I know a lot of you probably have a Leaving Class Gift/grad gift program. If you do – which is great – then I hope you’re not then stopping solicitations for 5+ years after they graduate. What’s the point in educating and creating awareness around philanthropy, having graduating students rally around a project and get excited about giving, if you’re then going to say, “Thanks so much! Now we’ll back off and you won’t hear from us for the next five years while you…”
While they what? Let’s backtrack now. Why would people not ask young alumni??? The truth is that I completely understand people’s hesitations to ask, or even their strategic choice not to ask. I would say that the main reasons why are that young alumni have no money, and if you’re fundraising for a university then they might even have massive student loans that they’re paying off. You don’t want to scare them away now by asking them, so you’ll give them 5 or so years to settle down, graduate from university (in the case of us independent schools), graduate from grad schools (in the case of universities), and/or settle into their first steady job with their first steady income and then when they’re all set to go, you’ll pop out of the woodwork and ask them for money. And they’ll think, “Wow, I haven’t heard from you for a while. Now that I have a little extra money, I want to donate it to my school that’s ignored me for five years.”
I’m being very facetious, but believe me, I get the approach. It comes from a place of compassion. But here’s what it comes down to: what hurts you more??? Asking from the get-go and risking bothering a small percentage of alumni? OR not asking and not communicating with your alumni for a number of years and risking a larger percentage of alumni becoming totally disengaged as a result?
Let’s get back to why asking young alumni is good. So you send your most recent graduating class their first solicitation letter after they graduate. They get to learn about some of the stuff happening at the school, which informs and engages them. They get to feel pretty cool for being an alumnus and for being solicited. Here are some potential reactions to your solicitation letter:
“Sounds like some cool stuff is happening at my old school, but I’m broke so I can’t give.”
“Wow, those fundraising priorities sound great! I don’t know if my $25 is going to count for much, but I’ll still donate!”
“I have no interest in giving back to my old school.”
And then a very small percentage of people might think: “I can’t believe they’re asking me for money! I just graduated! I have no money and am paying back student loans. There’s no way I’m making a donation!”
So of those four reactions, only one results in a gift, but two of them result in increased awareness and alumni engagement, and only one would really be considered a negative reaction.
Then let’s say you send this same class solicitations for the next five years. Five years later, you’re mailing to less people because some of them have asked not to be solicited, so the group you’re now reaching out to aren’t necessarily opposed to receiving these letters. This is an informed group of people, and maybe the person who gave $25 last time is now giving $50 and the person who liked to hear about what’s going on now has more of a disposable income, so they’re giving $25. See how things have started to change?
And that brings me to my next point: your current young alumni are your major donors of tomorrow. It’s just the plain truth. Every one of your loyal, engaged, and generous donors started as one of your young alumni however many years ago. But they didn’t start giving only when they made their first million, did they? They’ve always cared about the school, and every time they were given the chance to give back, they did. They didn’t necessarily make those opportunities for themselves though, did they? You asked.
Some of my favourite stories about philanthropic giving are about the quiet donor who gives a modest amount every single year, over and over and over, usually in response to a phonathon call or a direct mailing. And then one day, they pass away and leave behind a 6 or 7-figure gift in their will. They weren’t on anyone’s radar for a major or planned gift, but we kept asking and they kept giving, and they weren’t complacent about it; they cared.
And they started as a young alumnus.
Are you with me? We can’t ignore young alumni!!!
But you’re probably saying (I hope), “Okay, you’ve convinced me, but how do I ask young alumni???“
Well, I’ve got some thoughts and opinions on that, too, so I’ll be back in my next post – Young Alumni Fundraising – Part II with the answer to that question.
Let me know what you think about this post in the comments, or tweet at me @fundraisermaeve. Thanks for reading!
Written by Maeve Strathy
Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.