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Q&A: How to Engage Younger Alumni


Patricia B. House


Younger alumni (roughly defined as those under age 35) aren't just younger—in many ways they're a breed apart from the kinds of graduates advancement offices are accustomed to. They're less apt to engage with alumni organizations through traditional channels. And students now tend to be more mobile: Nearly a quarter of all graduates earn their undergraduate degrees at an institution different from the one where they began their college careers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The result is a moving target, and the numbers are beginning to show it: According to the Council for Aid to Education, the number of alumni who give to an alma mater has slipped from 13 percent in 2003 to less than 9 percent a decade later. That doesn’t mean advancement offices should give up, of course. In this exclusive Q&A with The Presidency, Patricia B. House, a former senior member of the institutional advancement team at Elon University (NC) and associate vice president for enrollment management at Seton Hall University (NJ) who now consults with institutions as senior vice president of client and consultant development at Graham-Pelton Consulting, Inc., offers some insights and tips that colleges and universities can leverage to productively engage younger alumni:

Why is it so important to focus on the engagement of younger alumni?

Put simply: Young alumni donors today are the major gift prospects of tomorrow. Young alumni want to give back—they may just be doing it differently from other generations, and it is incumbent upon colleges and universities to understand and embrace those philanthropic motivations. For young alumni, giving back to their alma mater has to be as socially engaging and rewarding as giving to other organizations.

In your experience, what factors make younger alumni harder to engage?

Younger alumni are inclined to focus their giving on a cause, not an institution, in a desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The standard loyalty argument of giving back to their alma mater is not a compelling one for them. Donors today seek greater transparency and accountability regarding their philanthropic investment, and younger alumni especially want to know how an organization is using their money—and that it is making a difference. Younger alumni may also be carrying student loan debt or paying for graduate school, which forces them into a very clear evaluative process of prioritizing where their dollars will go.

How important is technology to reaching this demographic?

The fierce competition for philanthropic dollars requires organizations to meet donors where they are, not wait for donors to come to them. Educational institutions must meet younger alumni where they are likely to be communicating most—in the digital world. The 2014 Millennial Impact Report finds that 73 percent of millennial alumni would actually like to receive more email from their alma mater. But they expect messaging to be clear, concise, and direct; Tweets limited to 140 characters have set a new standard for conciseness. Digital communications can also provide an entry point for traditional engagement vehicles, such as creative postcard campaigns and occasional snail-mail pieces, which stand out amid all the technological noise.

What’s the most common mistake advancement offices make in trying to reach them?

Advancement offices are unlikely to succeed in gaining interest from young alumni if they don’t make the messaging relevant. For example, instead of telling young alumni how the annual fund supports scholarships, tell them how the annual fund supports a particular student who wants to cure cancer or be the first in her family to get a college degree. Educational institutions need to be clear that they are doing as much good in the world (by graduating individuals who go on to do good in the world) as other nonprofits that young alumni are exposed to daily.

Many institutions are on very tight budgets. What’s an inexpensive first step a college or university can take to start getting better traction with younger alumni?

Drill down and segment outreach to young alumni rather than making broad strokes. They are more likely to respond to early communications that appeal to their affinity groups (major, extra-curricular involvement) and/or that provide them with personal and career benefits (personal finance advice, networking opportunities). Graham-Pelton’s team has found success with an alumni mentoring program for new graduates in their field of interest. This keeps the institution at the forefront while providing the graduate with needed professional guidance; it can translate into the graduate’s willingness to be a future mentor as well as thoughtfully consider the institution’s eventual request for monetary support.

What’s the most effective strategy you’ve seen for specifically targeting younger alumni?

Younger alumni see their time as a commodity as valuable as their financial assets; they may even feel that volunteering their time will have more impact than a small gift. Providing young alumni with opportunities to volunteer for institutional initiatives that have social impact (such as helping at the alma mater’s inner-city-school partner or joining an institutional give-back-to-your-community day) can be an effective start to transforming that volunteer commitment into a financial commitment. Consider recognizing time spent volunteering similarly to recognizing donors, with the creation of an online honor roll for those alumni who have given back hours to their alma mater—or perhaps more generally, to their community. Younger alumni can be greatly influenced by the decisions and behaviors of their peers, and peer-to-peer fundraising can also be very successful within a well-trained volunteer structure.

Are there things that institutions should be doing before students graduate in order to increase engagement afterward?

The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report found that graduates who felt supported during their time in college are six times more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater. That makes a strong case for an institution to be focused on the student experience as a proactive approach to growing an engaged alumni base. It is very hard to fix a poor student experience that leads a graduate to disconnect from the college or university.

Student philanthropy programs are more common on campuses today, with the intent to build a habit of giving. Programs that focus on a student-centered need that peers can identify with, want to support, and find easy to give to are emerging as more successful. For example, one of Graham-Pelton’s clients touts a Green Pig Giving Program. Students receive a green piggy bank that they keep on their desks, night stands, or kitchen tables—anywhere that motivates them to drop in loose change and dollar bills. The change collected can be dropped off at various Pig Drop events throughout the year to go toward programs and projects that directly benefit the student body, such as a student food pantry. This inspires awareness of institutional giving at an early and formative stage, which can yield continued engagement dividends following graduation.


Patricia B. House is senior vice president, client and consultant development, at Graham-Pelton Consulting, Inc.

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