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The Secret to Higher Alumni Participation: Start with Students, Not Alumni

Senior Vice President

Alumni Participation: sometimes it can seem a little exasperating.  But why such ire for this critical piece of the fundraising puzzle?

Briefly, a higher level of alumni participation can equal more funding with which to improve the faculty, campus, and amenities that a school can offer.  This can drastically improve a student’s experience for the better, both now and in the future.  Furthermore, a higher level of giving can indicate something else, too, to the world at large.  U.S. News and World Report measures alumni participation because, “The percentage of alumni giving serves as a proxy for how satisfied students are with the school.”  Since university leaders know that prospective students might see this number, they realize it could influence their decision and ultimately translate to a higher enrollment.  Development professionals understand how a higher rate can potentially raise a university’s profile, too, thus making their own fundraising efforts easier.  So both parties see the benefits of a high alumni participation rate.

The frustration comes about, though, with regards to timing.  When students become alumni and are being measured as donors, it’s often too late for a meaningful conversation to occur.  The student’s time at the school is over and the proverbial clock has run out with regards to them being engaged.  So this disconnect—university administrators and development professionals both wanting a high alumni participation rate, but the expectation to produce it then resting solely on development’s shoulders so late in the game—inevitably results in frustration on the part of everyone involved.

So how can this conversation be approached differently?  How else can the value of alumni participation be conveyed to the student and before the 11th hour?

In order to understand how it might happen, consider the life cycle of the typical college student.  There’s the perfectly crisp Saturday in September when Mom and Dad help their new student move their brand-new bedding, clothes, favorite snacks, and laptop into their 4th floor dorm room.  Then comes the orientation activities, complete with campus songs and silly dances, which integrate the new student into the college community.  Following are countless hours in class and in the library, at basketball games and at parties.  Mixed in are many late-night conversations filled with laughter, connection, and sometimes even love.  Then comes graduation on a warm day in the spring when degrees are conferred and the student experience formally ends.

That timeline is important.  It demonstrates how students don’t just change from new students to seniors overnight. Similarly, graduates don’t suddenly change into donors on graduation day, either.  Quite simply, students change into donors over time, cumulatively, during and as a result of their positive student experience.  And since engaged students have the strongest emotional connection with the institution during their student experience, it only makes sense to start the conversation of giving, at any amount, during this time window.

Data confirms this. When surveyed, 68% of alumni who gave to their alma mater considered themselves “engaged in campus life apart from academic study,” and after graduation, 80% of giving alumni indicated that they remained connected with their alma maters. Stated simply, alumni participation can and should be a part of the natural life cycle of a current student’s experience that begins on the very first day of orientation.  Integrating this not only makes sense but could also make dollars in the long run.

For alumni participation to become a seamless part of the university culture, it needs to be seen for what it is: symptomatic of the student experience and thus the responsibility of the entire community. If everyone understands the importance of alumni participation—students, faculty, staff, and administration—and communicates this sentiment early and often, it can transform this measurement into so much more than a number. Instead, it can be a more accurate reflection of the student experience and a sign of how strong an alumni community can soon become, and can determine how successful a university brand is moving forward.