Fund Raising Challenge

When young alumni are more likely to be moving in with Mom and Dad than cashing signing bonuses, how do you promote giving?
May 19, 2009

The job market is terrible for new graduates and young alumni, but development offices still want them as donors. At many institutions, this is leading to campaigns to get as many people as possible to give small amounts, such as $20.09 to symbolize this year. But there are also colleges that have decided this is a time to forget about participation rates and go for dollars.

About six or seven years ago, Indiana University at Bloomington started to target young alumni as a specific donor group, with glossy, creative mailings, appeals to Gen Y values, “things that have been really outside the box,” according to Jonathan Purvis, executive director in the office of special gifts and annual giving programs. The idea – which is still shared by colleges across the country – was to reach as many young alumni as possible in an attempt to garner widespread participation levels, hopefully encouraging those young donors to make a habit of giving early on. The theory is that early givers will also be donors when they become wealthier – plus U.S. News & World Report tracks giving rates. With an average of just 0.2 percent of young alumni responding, though, Purvis said he had to question the approach.

“In terms of young alumni specific programming, we just determined that it doesn’t work,” he said. “We made a philosophical decision not to open up the bar and let everyone give 20 dollars and nine cents. In the long term, it’s bad when you teach your students that that’s what philanthropy means and that’s what it means to give to your institution.”

Instead of sending the message that “every gift helps," Indiana University is shifting during the economic downturn to “much more targeted work,” at the student and young alumni level.

“We want to attract the kind of students that are philanthropically minded in the first place,” he said. “Then let’s treat these students as donors. We’ve really taken the philosophy that if we want our students to become donors, we have to treat them like donors when we have them here.”

To that end, Indiana University this past school year hosted a large Senior Challenge Black and White Gala, complete with appearances from top-level administrators and personal invitations for prominent campus leaders. Much in the same way that the college’s foundation would approach – and entertain – major donors, Purvis said university officials appealed to the students in attendance by “speaking to their passions” and talking to them “the same way we’d talk to adult donors.”

The result: “Total dollars raised is not anything that’s going to blow anyone away, but the senior class president took his $4,000 stipend and gifted it back to the university,” Purvis said. That is a great example of the kind of early giving Indiana University is seeking to encourage, he said.

As for which students count as potential major, long term donors – which students are more “philanthropically minded” than their peers – Purvis said his method to pinpoint them is “right now a relatively inexact science.” Students highly involved on campus, who have given in the past to the university or other causes at a high level for their age demographic, or just “people we know” typically make the list. “Let’s reach out to the population that we have the best shot of having meaningful conversations with,” he said.

Another potential identifier for those philanthropically minded students is the class campaign program Indiana piloted last year. Members of every class, freshman through senior, are asked to donate to projects or programs that they feel passionately about – extending the concept of a senior class gift to all classes. Along the way, Purvis said, “we can educate them about how support of IU is also philanthropic, also a worthy investment of their philanthropic time.” That pilot program saw a big influx last year, especially with freshmen, who could be the among the students who get the gala invitation three years from now.

While it is still too early to determine the overall success of Indiana’s new approach, Purvis said, “the anecdotal evidence is really exciting.”

"Elevating that conversation is I think what will maximize your returns. Even when the economy is bottoming out, we’ve been targeting some of our calling with some more aggressive asks. We’re not really seeing any ill effect to that.”

Focus on Participation

For most other universities, the bottoming-out economy is a signal to stay the course with campaigns centered on participation levels rather than dollar amounts with their young alumni. And when the rubric is how many and not how much, the trend this year despite the tough economic climate is about the same as in recent years, according to John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

“Yes, our numbers are relatively flat this year,” said Becky Cunningham, associate director of annual giving at Loyola Marymount University, speaking about overall donations from young alumni. “But the good news is that we’re relatively flat this year.”

The senior class gift campaign is one area where Loyola Marymount has directed more attention to participation than total revenue. “Predictably, the average gift has dropped,” said Bedford McIntosh, vice president for development and alumni relations. The drop was considerable in the number of seniors donating at the top – $100 – level, which McIntosh attributed to fears about jobs. The average donation amount from seniors declined by more than half to roughly $15, but the percentage of seniors who gave went up to 60 percent from last year’s rate of 36 percent. All of that adds up to relatively flat final tally.

Northern Illinois University is also seeing dollar amounts dipping while participation levels are steady or slightly increasing. Shad Hanselman, director of the annual fund, said the focus of their calling efforts has completely shifted to participation – even if it is just to remind reluctant givers of Northern Illinois’ annual fund so as to stay in the front of their mind in the (hopefully more prosperous) years to come.

Gonzaga University will be pushing a "recurring" giving program this year, said Patti Whitcomb, assistant director of annual giving. As of this year, the program is fully automated – donors can set up their regular gifts online, setting amounts and regular intervals for their prolonged donations. “We’re going to market that heavily to our young alumni this year,” Whitcomb said. “We’re going to tell them that $500 out of one paycheck might be a lot, but you can spread out those payments over time and make it more manageable.”

For Cunningham, those donations of several hundred dollars are simply not what Loyola Marymount is targeting from its students and young alumni.

“We’re telling them, maybe you don’t have a coffee or latte this morning because you want to give to your university,” she said.

Senior Gifts

Class gift-giving campaigns remain a key component of both donation collecting and philanthropic education – all despite a tough economic climate.

While the general trend seems to be an increase in the number of students giving and a decrease in the amount they’re willing to commit, Lippincott of CASE said there is something colleges can do to up the ante: let students decide where their money goes. Lippincott said he asked his daughter, who is graduating from Vassar College this year, about the sentiment among her peers about giving back to their college and learned that, while they would like to be supportive, they are “very insecure about what’s going to happen to them next year.”

Still, Vassar has seen a marginal increase in giving from its young alumni this year, and is poised to achieve a record 72 percent participation rate among its seniors in the annual senior gift campaign, according to Lance Ringel, communications coordinator in the development office at Vassar.

What Ringel said is a major factor in that success – something echoed by Lippincott’s daughter – is that the seniors are asked to decide what their donation money will be placed toward. This year, graduating seniors decided their gift will help fund a winter internship program for Vassar students. Thanks to the class of 2009, next year’s sophomores, juniors and seniors will be able to work with companies across a variety of industries in New York City and Poughkeepsie for two weeks over winter break while being housed by alumni and provided a stipend for food and transportation through the senior gift fund.

“We think it’s really resonated [in this economic climate] that it’s a way to help your peers who need an internship,” Ringel said.

Many other colleges employ a similar method; Gonzaga, for one, encourages students to “give to your passion through Gonzaga" – meaning students can choose where their money goes, but there is not one specific senior gift – and has seen a rise in donations to green initiatives through class-specific campaigns. Purdue University, similarly, does not have a specific fund seniors donate to, but instead asks its graduates to “give back to something at the university that’s important to them,” said Angela Dunwoody, assistant director of annual giving for student philanthropy and young alumni.

Also on the rise is an extension of class giving campaigns to underclassmen, in addition to seniors. Indiana, Colorado College and Western Michigan University have all started such campaigns with relative success, and Northern Illinois is looking to start a program that would involve all students.

“The focus has to be on open communication and education,” Hanselman said. “We want to increase general knowledge about philanthropy [with all class levels].”

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