Here is an amazingly impactful and timely post by my friend and guest blogger Paige Eubanks-Barrow.
You’ve heard about alumni participation rate a lot lately, and you’ve seen your institutional leadership pressure gift officers to get more gifts, more dollars and more donors. Their battle cry: “If we can’t hit our fund raising goal in this economy, by God, we WILL hit the donor number goal!”
Alumni giving participation rates are dropping, and not because people are losing interest or are unable to give to their alma maters. We aren’t losing donors; we are graduating alumni who haven’t been told about the impact donors have had on their lives. They haven’t been told that their tuition doesn’t cover the cost of their education.
Age and tradition play a large part in this equation too. Carnegie Mellon University is young. Our aspirational peers are older –some hundreds of years older – and they have that special, seemingly unattainable culture of giving. That special something that moves alumni to give back as a matter of pride and expectation.
Clearly, we must begin to create a similar culture of giving on our campuses starting with a student’s first step on campus. A common perception is that our institutions have their hands out the moment our graduates move their tassels. And in a sense, we have operated that way. Until institutional leadership recognizes that standard operating procedure as a problem, we will be stuck with these poor perceptions.
Math is against us. Even if participation rates stay the same for a time, alumni bases will grow at such a pace that participation statistics will be turned upside down. But timing is on our side. I’ll be the first to admit, my research on students’ perception of philanthropy consists mostly of listening to stirrings and conversations of peers here on campus and from conference to conference, year after year. Yet, without actually quitting my job to pursue a Ph.D. on the topic, I feel I can confidently say that the downturn of the U.S. economy -- while robbing many of us of our livelihood and security -- has incited a positive shift in higher education advancement culture.
Technology and the economy have created a perfect storm of opportunity. Today’s student audiences are bigger, more diverse and poorer than ever. They have greater access to college and are receiving more financial aid than any previous generation. Because of the poor economy, today’s graduate programs are experiencing an influx of students seeking to redirect or expand their career options.
So consider these two audiences: undergraduates with tremendous need and capacity to appreciate donors now; and graduate students, who received assistance as undergraduates, have been in the real (working) world and now can appreciate as adults the very real impact the generosity of others has had on them and their families.
This current campus population is poised to be the most appreciative of philanthropic gestures from the current donor base because they can touch and feel it now. They are living it every single day of their lives. With them, we have to act now. The consequences of doing little or nothing will be felt over and over again when this very large group of prospective future donors reaches their wealth and prosperity peak in the next 20 to 30 years.
Non-profit organizations can no longer afford to put off what is important to accommodate what is immediate. The opportunity to create an educated and informed philanthropic-minded alumni base is here and it is HUGE. So put on your shoes, run and tie them as you go. It is truly an exciting prospect when we stop to consider that we have this tremendous opportunity to have an impact on the future of our institutions.
In 2010, Carnegie Mellon took its first steps in actively educating the student population with its first “Love-A-Donor Day.” Results were so positive that we replicated it five times over in 2011 with “Love-A-Donor Week.” These are not the only steps we have taken, and certainly they are not the only steps to take. Next week we will share more about these strategies and others that we hope will encourage you to join us as we strive to educate and inform the next generation of philanthropists. If you would like to share what you are doing at your institution to encourage student and young alumni philanthropic participation, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paige Eubanks-Barrow is senior associate director of donor relations at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.