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Alumni giving metrics will no longer be a part of college rankings. Here’s why you should renew your commitment to annual giving anyway.

July 7, 2023, By Mairzy Krulic, Vice President, Advancement Marketing Services and Digital Experience

This spring, US News and World Report announced they will remove alumni giving metrics from consideration for their 2024 college rankings. The news marks a meaningful shift, especially given University Boards and Presidents’ laser focus on alumni participation as a way of buoying their institutions’ standings in these rankings.

But measuring alumni participation rates (APR) has long been a dubious way to demonstrate alumni engagement and support. Increasing participation has required significant investment to continuously acquire and retain donors among growing young alumni bases—and to retain donors as they live longer. In recent years, declining donor counts have forced advancement leaders to consider the potential impact on pipeline development, how staffing challenges are delaying appeals, and the ROI generated from limited budgets.

This has left advancement leaders with an important question: In an era when many schools are seeing declining donor counts, does US News’ latest update decrease the importance of annual giving programs? No. Today, the value of a successful annual giving program is as important as ever. Annual giving is no longer just a long-term play for top-of-the-funnel pipeline, but a critical way to engage your diverse supporters with immediate returns.

Here are four primary reasons why boards, presidents, and advancement leaders should renew their commitment to annual giving.

1. Annual giving generates immediate and flexible revenue.

It’s increasingly important to prioritize efforts that generate spendable cash to offset declining or stagnant tuition revenue. Further, because gifts made through an annual giving program are typically unrestricted, they give academic leaders the much-needed flexibility to address immediate needs and changing near-term priorities. With leadership transitions increasing and strategic plans requiring increased agility, annual giving programs provide a direct connection to those who can support these efforts.

2. Annual giving identifies donor prospects not currently known to major gift officers.

Recent studies have shown the Gen Z and Millennial donors – often those you consider as future major donors for your pending campaign – are giving more when responding to a cause with impact. As digital channels and technology play a larger role, you can share messages of impact at scale and as it occurs.

Further, using today’s analytics tools, you can more easily identify or re-acquire near-term major gift prospects by discovering several types of anomalies:

  • previous non or lower-level donors recently making a 4 or 5 figure gift (growing your pipeline with leadership annual giving programs)
  • loyal donors who may be ready to discuss planned giving considerations
  • long-term consistent donors who have never been asked to upgrade their support or have suddenly stopped giving.

These instances provide an opportunity for a personal contact to be made and would likely not be discovered without a robust annual giving program.

Cultivating Pipeline: Expanding Focus on Leadership Annual Giving

High APR

Because institutions with high APR typically have lower overall production, the ROI of hiring more annual giving staff is much lower than hiring a mid-level (Leadership Annual Giving) gift officer. According to LightCast, there has been 22% growth in job postings for Leadership Annual Giving Officer positions from June 2018 – May 2023. Meaning more competition for talent for your advancement team.

3. Strategic investments can drive stronger results.

Staffing challenges in recent years uncovered some hard truths about annual giving. Many institutions have not audited current efforts to ensure they are focused on efficiencies and optimization, nor have they adequately invested in outside partnerships for expertise and added capacity. Gone are the days of “spray and pray” direct mail and phone campaigns. Annual giving must mirror the retail marketing experience that alumni and donors have come to expect by meeting them where they are with personalized messages.

Tackling Staff “Churnover”: Retention Strategies for Advancement Leaders

While university leaders have rightfully celebrated the outcomes from collective donor events like Giving Days and peer-to-peer giving, budgets for annual giving programs remain woefully stagnant and often mis-aligned. Donor acquisition and retention – at any gift level – requires new investments in both staff and resources. Monitoring response rates to annual giving efforts ensures we are meeting donors in the right ways and adjusting investment and strategy as necessary.

Rethink Your Strategy

Rethinking where you invest your dollars in your annual giving strategy is key to ensuring your meeting your donors where they are. Use this comprehensive diagnostic to audit your current efforts and focus on prioritizing new initiatives and building a pipeline for future support.

4. Communications deployed via your annual giving program are your best and most efficient methods to reach prospective donors at scale.

When done well, annual giving communications offer an egalitarian, consistent opportunity to share your vision with all constituents. University communications tend to focus on messages directed to prospective students and their families; annual giving messages can and should highlight outcomes that directly result from annual support and invite donors to align with institutional priorities (note: do not neglect to track these donor preferences).

Recent changes to US News rankings do not take the spotlight off annual giving but instead invites leaders to think differently about the purpose and value of these programs. Rather than promoting participation a path to transactional relationships, annual giving programs can both generate immediate support and nurture a shrinking pipeline – but only with a renewed commitment to getting it right.

Mairzy Krulic

Vice President, Advancement Marketing Services and Digital Experience

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