Happy student talking to her professor while receiving certificate on graduation day.
In many ways, alumni are a university’s greatest assets. They act as ambassadors for the university brand, provide invaluable networking, career, and information resources for current students. Let’s not forget they also contribute millions in donation to the university’s budget, scholarships and endowment every year. Of course, alumni donations are not automatic. A great college experience can go a long way towards building an engaged alumni base, but an active strategy is vital to ensure the goodwill continues to build and translates into donations.
That strategic focus has become an increasingly important issue in light of COVID-19, which has caused especially smaller colleges to become increasingly reliant on alumni donations. However, even large universities can benefit from a plan designed to engage and convert donors.
Getting there, of course, can be complex. But it doesn’t need to be complicated. These 7 tips can help colleges and universities of any size build their alumni donations.
1. Make it Easy to Donate
Easing the process of donating for your alumni is the first and probably most important step you can take. In today’s digital environment, constituents are not looking to jump through hoops just to provide their money. Instead, they’re looking for ways to give to a cause they support in a few, quick steps.
A few core steps can help you streamline the donation process:
- Leverage channels your alumni prefer, like texting. A simple note to “text this number to donate $5 to your alma mater” can go a long way, especially for young alumni.
- Connect stories to donations with relevant calls to action. When your sports teams win, or a graduate has conducted exciting research, your alumni will want to read about it. In those stories, a strategically-placed CTA to support the university and its students can go a long way.
- Streamline your donation form. Accepting multiple forms of payment, such as PayPal, can make it easier to commit to a donation.
Of course, these are just a few examples. Test out your current donation process with current alumni and staff. Then, use their feedback to simplify it as much as possible to reduce friction for your audience.
2. Plan Your Fundraising Around School Spirit
Alumni connect to your school largely because they feel like they are still part of its community. That school spirit especially shows at sporting events, where they’re proud to cheer for their alma mater. That’s why sporting events in particular, but any school spirit events in general, tend to be great fundraising opportunities.
Sporting events offer fundraising potential at all donor levels:
- Pre-game and post-game receptions for high-profile donors cultivate constituent relationships and help to secure future major gifts.
- VIP game experiences allow mid-level donors, particularly those with a past connection to the sport in question, to contribute to the university.
- Digital campaigns around the big game, from emails to texts and social media, engage young alumni and first-time donors. For instance, a campaign around a big game win could include asking for a donation that matches the winning game score or MVP’s jersey number.
School spirit is never an accident, and tends to be carefully cultivated. If part of that cultivation includes building donation drives, your fundraising efforts can take off.
3. Create Segmented Donation Appeals
Segmenting your donor base can go a long way towards generating more relevant donation campaigns for your constituents. Annual giving offices and other fundraising offices across campus have long engaged in nuanced campaigns specifically designed to appeal to the unique needs and desires of each alumni segment.
The key, of course, is what you do with these segments to actually drive increased donations. A few potential opportunities include:
- Competitions between generations or individual classes to raise the most funds in a given time period. This type of challenge works especially well during single-day donation drives such as #GivingTuesday.
- Reunion-based donation drives. A specific letter to the class that graduated 25 years ago, for instance, can allow you to get specific in your message’s emotional appeal.
- Engagement-based segmentation that builds on recent action. For example, if your alumni database can store information on which alumni attended your most recent homecoming, you can launch a drive specifically to that audience around improving the campus they just came back to visit.
Importantly, segmentation only works well when the messaging that follows is directly connected to the segmentation variables. In other words, it’s crucial to only segment your audience when you build campaigns specifically designed to personalize its message based on your segmentation.
4. Leverage Social Media to Tell Impact Stories
Social media is an increasingly important fundraising tool in higher education. According to CASE, 59% of colleges and universities have successfully used it to boost their alumni donations. Just how you use it, though, becomes a crucial consideration.
To explain further, think about your own personal social media habits. You likely don’t expect or prefer to see your news feed crowded with endless appeals to give money. Instead, you’re looking for engaging post that draw you in through a visual and storytelling appeal.
That’s how social media can become a core fundraising tool. Through video, graphics, and narrative, tell the story of the impact donations can make. Showcase faculty research, building progress, or student success. Create a sense of accomplishment, which you can then follow up in the story itself by asking for donations to create future impact.
5. Connect Fundraising to Alumni Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a major factor in how alumni engage with your university. They love to remember their own experiences on campus, the friendships they made and accomplishments they celebrated. Successful fundraisers routinely turn these positive feelings into a willingness to donate in order to create similar experiences for current and future students.
Of course, accomplishing that feat requires a balancing act. The last thing you want is to cheapen the authentic feelings of your alumni through obvious ploys to draw money from them. Instead, it pays to be more subtle.
The key to success, then, is promoting nostalgia while naturally transitioning to donation opportunities, without getting too pushy in driving these donations. Instead, they remain optional opportunities only for alumni who feel driven to support future generations.
For instance, a historic virtual tour can be a major hit among alumni audiences who can remember the campus as it was during or before their time. As they experience the virtual tour, a call to action can link to a donation form to help future generations of students. That donation button remains optional, however; alumni can still engage in nostalgic feelings without it.
Other, similar examples of connecting fundraising to nostalgia is to re-live old campus events, such a historic sporting victory. You can also draft fundraising appeals to come from important people in your alumni’s college experience, such as a beloved former class president or professor emeritus.
6. Coordinate Crowdfunding Efforts for Individual University Units
In the past few years, crowdfunding has rapidly gained popularity in the higher education space. Peer-driven donation campaigns can go a long way towards engaging especially millennial audiences, who have embraced the technology as a vital part of their charitable contributions.
Organizing a crowdfunding campaign, of course, requires a different approach than most other ways to increase alumni donations. The best approach includes partnering with individual university units, such as individual sports teams, student organizations, or academic departments, providing guidance and technology help while letting them run their own campaign.
The resulting campaign originates from the department, and is largely driven by students and professors rather than the university’s administration. That increases authenticity and makes each donation feel more personal, making especially younger alumni more likely to give and pledge their support for the individual unit.
7. Leverage Students in Your Donation Drives
Experienced higher education administrators know never to underestimate the importance of leveraging students in communication efforts to all audiences. The same is naturally the case in fundraising, where students can become natural narrators and pitch-makers for some of your most effective donation appeals.
We’ve already explored some of these opportunities above. Students, for instance, can help to drive crowdfunding efforts or be the subject of impact stories shared on social media. But the options go far beyond these examples.
Students can sign direct mail appeals. They can create more organic social media campaigns in which they show their life on campus, made possible through alumni scholarships. They can write thank you notes to donors, or host them during campus events.
Find More Tips to Get More Alumni Donations
For students, these examples are vital networking and relationship-building opportunities. For alumni, the more direct connection with students is much more natural than hearing from an administrator they might not directly connect with the university. That’s why leveraging students can go a long way towards getting more donations from your alumni.
Of course, these are only some of the many ways in which any university, of any size, can improve their fundraising opportunities. Beyond a strategy, you also need the technology to make it happen. For instance, the above-mentioned historic tour can be magnified by virtual tour software designed to immerse and engage your audience. For more on our virtual tour technology, and how you can leverage it to increase donations, contact us.