Dramatic shot of a traditional college main building tower. It's a stormy day and the tower looks imposing.
← All Articles

My alma mater doesn't understand me

Joel G Goodman
/ 5 min read

Do you ever think the alumni relations folks at your alma mater just don’t get it? Universities dump loads of time and money into fundraising efforts a couple days or weeks out of the year, but it’s become apparent the majority don’t know how development works today.

I spent six years in advancement offices working with alumni relations teams, trying and make our website work for their requests, before striking out on my own to start Bravery Media. They have the same shiny object syndrome everyone else does—they see a new web app or service that promises to connect their alumni and increase their donations and scrape together the money to buy the thing.

No thinking. No planning. No questioning.

A couple of days ago I found an email in my inbox from my undergraduate alma mater. I haven’t heard from their alumni office in ages and the last few times I have it’s been for a giving ask. This email, though, was an invitation join their new online alumni community site and not asking for money…

I would give them cash to not have to use this thing.

The shockingly bad design of this product hurts and makes me want to run away. Because I have no relationship with the alumni office at this point, I have every reason to hot foot it out of there and never engage.

Because I like to be helpful, here is my attempt at explaining what’s currently wrong with how universities engage young alumni.

Young alums are important. Engage them early.

At most universities, major gift officers (MGOs) are given the most professional investment because they bring in the big money. The cycle they follow is lengthy and focused on cultivating a relationship with a donor over months and years until that donor is ready to pull the trigger and make that gift. It’s an intentional, applied process.

It’s a process that is rarely applied to the most obvious target group: current students.

The early cultivation stage of major gift development should start while a student is on campus. If institutions want young alumni to give at all, it is vital to understand that the motivations of the current youth generations are much different than those of their parents and grandparents. A big part of those motivations is based on relational value.

In other words, do they feel a favorable connection to their university? Did they have a good experience interacting with the various administrative offices? Did they feel their time was valued and respected? After they’ve left, do they feel the university appreciated their contributions to the community and will support their future professional endeavors?

Or was college just one large transaction where the university took their money, gave them an education, and then expects them to want to keep handing money over after graduation?

Declining personal giving needs augmentation

The Council for Aid to Education found that personal giving by alumni fell 8.5% in 2016 to approximately 24% of total giving [~source~]. Hidden within that number is the fact that the majority of those giving alumni would be considered major gift donors.

Those major gifts can be augmented and bolstered with a little bit of attention paid to current students.

WWe all know that retention is a big issue, and it seems most institutions decided to focus on recruitment instead of fixing the low-hanging fruit around keeping students. As tuition has gone up and fear of debt has increased, admission numbers have declined. Isn’t it finally time to realize that current students are essential to future fundraising?

I hear all the time from friends, clients, and random people how frustrating their relationship with their college or university was. They may have made great friendships, had exceptional instructors, and found remarkable social opportunities, but when it came to the institution’s soft product it was clear the administration just did not understand how to engage. I personally experienced this systemic mentality for two years while earning my master’s degree.

Current students turn into alumni. They may not be ready to make a major gift immediately out of school, but a personal touch and an excellent on-campus experience goes a long way to developing that later major gift with the added benefit of micro-giving opportunities out of school. Economies of scale won’t necessarily make up for those $500k and up major gifts, but as more students graduate, every little bit helps to complement those large donations and a well-supported young alum may be more willing to give a small monthly donation than one who had a lousy experience.

This isn’t about digital engagement or edtech

Digital tools can be beneficial when executed correctly, but this isn’t about how to better leverage micro-giving and crowdfunding online, or about providing alternative social networks for alumni :shudder: — this is about providing an end-to-end experience that crosses our temporal world and the digital layer that sits on top of it to provide a cohesive, enjoyable reality.

Honestly, I’ve been talking about this issue forever…

Don’t treat the digital and physical worlds as different things. They already coexist and overlap.

When you run a university, the temporal or IRL experiences you provide affect your students’ digital experiences and vice versa. They are both important and if you neglect one you undermine the other.

Furthermore, if a tech company tries to sell you on data or a digital tool that promises to fix your retention and increase your giving intake, be skeptical. As my friend says, edtech has done us zero favors. So many institutions buy into a promise that cannot possibly pan out without doing internal work.

What to do

Well, the easy way to say it is: recognize the important potential current students contain. The more difficult task at hand is changing internal culture. But I think I have an idea in that direction too.

Administrators and leadership at so many institutions have demonstrated over the years that they primarily value new enrollment numbers; the time has come to reevaluate and change that strategy. And if you go to any higher education conference that doesn’t cater to the executive level, you’ll hear how hard it is for administrative staff to break through the “silos” at their institutions. So here’s my hard and somewhat radical idea…

Put student affairs and alumni affairs together.

Yeah, that sounds crazy. But the thought exercise is an interesting one. If those responsible for the student experience thought like MGOs, a lot of things would change for the better — and not just on the fundraising side. MGOs take a lot of care in developing relationships with their donors; what if current students were cared for just as well? How would that change retention, graduation rates, and learning outcomes?

When it comes down to it, this is all just a way to say that the successful institutions are the ones that already show care and respect for their students. They demonstrate how aware they are of the community’s needs and wants on a daily basis.

I know I would respond so much better to both of the universities I hold degrees from if they didn’t seem so out of touch.

Bravery creates daring solutions to the core challenges facing institutions of higher learning. We also do a bit of big-thinking. We would love to talk to you about your upcoming projects.

Get in touch!