3 strategies for connecting your millennial alumni to a cause


3 strategies for connecting your millennial alumni to a cause

Kids these days—are we right?

At private and public institutions of all sizes, millennials have annual giving directors scratching their heads. A socially conscious generation, they’re quick to open their wallets for a variety of causes, but also skeptical about giving back to universities. Seventy-five percent of millennials say that they’d rather donate to another not-for-profit before making a gift to their alma maters.

Why is there a disconnect? For many young people, it comes down to impact. As a young alumna from Augustana College recently said, “It would never cross my mind to give to my school. If I can only give $100, you get to see that go so much farther with a smaller, more localized cause. If you give $100 to a school you might get a thank you note. It almost feels like giving your money to the mall.”

However, annual funds can capitalize on this shift toward cause-based giving. Our Advancement Forum experts outline three strategies for cultivating young alumni support by connecting them to causes they care about.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Achieve Scale, Sustainability, and Impact in Principal Gifts Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.


of Millennial donors give to 3 or more not-for-profits annually


have never donated to their alma mater


Would give to another not-for-profit before their alma mater

1. Solicit for “common denominator” causes

Donors increasingly want to have a direct impact on beneficiaries’ lives. Yet too often, solicitations make broad, institutional asks that don’t align with these passions. To solve this problem, advancement staff need to identify gift designations that a large number of alumni find meaningful.


additional donors from targeted solictations
additional donors from targeted solictations

Rather than guess which causes would motivate alumni to give, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—in partnership with Evertrue—analyzed social media engagement data to identify top-performing Facebook posts. MIT found that a student robotics group generated intense enthusiasm from alumni non-donors and followed up by soliciting for a gift to the robotic group’s crowdfunding campaign.

The targeted solicitation brought an additional 90 donors to the project, including one $20,000 gift from a non-donor who had never before taken a visit with MIT.

2. Capitalize the “hidden affinities” of campus partners

Central advancement staff struggle to identify alumni interests. Even if they can link to particular affinities, sending an appeal from the annual giving office probably won’t draw enough attention to inspire action.

That’s why tapping into campus partners’ visibility into the alumni experience is crucial—the resulting messaging and designations align with “hidden affinities” that advancement staff might otherwise overlook.

Under Texas Christian University’s ambassador-driven outreach initiative, a diverse group of campus partners—ranging from a rhinoceros researcher to the school’s director of first year experience—helps annual giving staff identify target groups of young alumni and crafts meaningful solicitations that appear to come from ambassadors’ personal accounts. Although central staff send the appeal, each solicitation seems customized to individual donor experience.

3. Put donors in the driver’s seat

Ultimately, no one knows what motivates a donor to give better than the donor. Alumni need to be able to easily access designated fund information online—and burying that information in annual giving websites can mean potential donors fail to find something they feel passionate about supporting.

Advancement and IT staff can combat this problem by overhauling the institution’s giving page to better guide donors toward a cause that motivates them. User-friendly layouts should present site visitors with cause photos, customized cases for support, progress bars, and other multimedia elements that help sustain momentum through the completion of the gift.

Recently, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) put donors in the driver’s seat by launching a new giving website that allows alumni to browse through a range of funds from all across campus. Instead of traditional drop-down designation lists divided between colleges or schools, UCLA organized its funds by 14 causes that range from the arts to technology. Each fund displays a progress bar that tracks donations, allowing donors to visualize the impact of their gift.

Employing these three strategies can drive millennial engagement and donations by capitalizing on their desire for direct, cause-orientated impact—ultimately strengthening your annual fund.

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