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Non-Alumni Donors as Engines of Support: How to Add Fuel to Your Effort

Vice President (Former)

Educational institutions have “built in” donor bases within their alumni populations, but non-alumni can have tremendous philanthropic impact as well.

In fact , Graham-Pelton conducted research of the top 50 gifts made to education in 2020, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Of those 50 gifts, 32 were given by non-alumni (totaling $1.1 billion).

We cannot talk about non-alumni giving without acknowledging the largesse of MacKenzie Scott’s support of many colleges and universities in 2020. With unrestricted gifts ranging from $20 million to $50 million, her gifts usually represented the largest gift from a single donor in each institution’s history.

That said, Ms. Scott’s generosity did not skew results so deeply. Even when you remove her support from our analysis, 22 of the top 50 gifts were given by non-alumni and total $729 million.

While we all wish we were on MacKenzie Scott’s radar, the truth is you have prospects with their eyes on you and your institution. Whether they become loyal annual donors or make a transformative gift, these donors deserve special consideration.

Who are they?

These potential donors are community members, business leaders, season ticket holders, lecture series members, cultural event attendees, and more. Some of these relationships are transactional: they buy the ticket, they attend the game or event. Some have deeper connections: it is family money that writes the tuition check, you educate someone they care deeply about. Some have a business or research tie to your institution: they care deeply about a population you elevate or the solutions your faculty and institutional leaders bring to the world.

How do you move these supporters from a transactional relationship to one that is deeper and more impactful for both them and the institution?

Pay attention to their behaviors and the data:

  • Look at which emails from your institution they are subscribed to and which events they attend
  • Conduct prospect research, including wealth screenings
  • Look at your public/private partnerships to determine which leaders are involved
  • Examine which companies/employers are hiring your graduates or providing internship opportunities
  • Look at the relationships that currently exist between the supporter and the school

Resourcing and rallying around your efforts

Depending on the size of your staff, it may seem like an uphill battle to examine the data and qualify these prospects. Talk to and collaborate with your colleagues.  Reassure them that developing this relationship will benefit the institution, using specific examples, goals, and other success stories.

Once you cultivate internal buy-in, begin setting thresholds (such as years of annual giving or years of season ticket membership) and benchmarks (such as asking for an increase to their gift amount or their support of another area of the institution) that are efficient and effective. Set realistic expectations, knowing that you can continue to raise your sights once you meet these initial benchmarks.

Understanding the non-alumni donor

After working with “baked-in” constituencies such as parents and alumni, the most important consideration is this: The perception the non-alumni supporter has toward your institution is different. It isn’t a sense of loyalty that will inspire them to give their first gift or any subsequent gifts. And nostalgia – knowing that they will show up for homecoming or a big game — won’t soften fundraising or communications missteps.

These donors are motivated to give because your institution is:

  • solving a specific problem or issue, whether local, national, or global
  • educating the local workforce
  • effectively using its resources and “brain trust”
  • providing exposure and opportunities for students that will help them become employable and contributing community members
  • providing access to underserved populations
  • educating or supporting someone they care about
  • aligning with their personal values
  • equipping them with learning opportunities
  • providing them entertainment, whether cultural or athletic

Keep in mind, these donors will not have the same affinity touches that your alumni do. And while alumni relations offices are set up for recognition mechanisms that often support fundraising efforts, this doesn’t often translate to non-alumni recognition. As a result, non-alumni require additional consideration and care. Look at the types of communications and messaging these prospects and donors receive. It is worth taking the time to create and deliver content that is meaningful and inspiring and demonstrates the impact your institution is having. Four ways to do this are:

  • Evaluate your centralized, generic mailings to determine whether these resonate with non-alumni
  • Consider separate communications channels just for these supporters
  • Create an honorary alumnus or Honorary Degree Recipient program

Above all, remember that your collaboration and coordination with internal leaders to identify, nurture, and steward non-alumni donors is critical. Articulating the important role that non-alumni can play, along with their sensitivity toward bureaucracy and institutional barriers, must take place early and often.