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Activating and retaining undergraduate alumni as annual donors

Navigating the obstacles facing the value proposition for higher education as a worthy cause for alumni donors

August 11, 2023

Margo Thomas

Executive Director of Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving, Stetson University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

The problem

It has become increasingly more difficult for institutions of higher education to reach and retain alumni donors. There is a national downward trend in alumni support of their alma maters, and the national discourse surrounding the value vs. cost of higher education makes this a nuanced and substantial problem. According to a Ruffalo Noel Levitz analysis of the CASE VSE survey, “of the 667 institutions that reported in both 2019 and 2022, 81 percent are down on [alumni] donor count between these times.”

Appealing to a graduate’s sense of obligation, sense of community or nostalgia will no longer be enough to engage them as donors. Fundraisers need to now have the tools to navigate a political environment, hone compelling value propositions for their institution, and link philanthropy with specific positive outcomes.

According to a survey performed from January to March 2023 of Stetson University undergraduate alumni, of the 62% of respondents who said they do not give, 43% stated they couldn’t afford it, and another 32% indicated that the institution has enough resources or wouldn’t communicate how their gift would be used. This indicates there are two large factors at play—trust and value.

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Steps forward

In 2023, US News & World Report eliminated the Alumni Giving Rate as part of their rankings measure, which is a great step to fundamentally changing the way Annual Giving and Alumni Engagement offices approach their conversations regarding philanthropy. It offers an opportunity to focus on education and giving outcomes and move away from gimmicks (i.e.: give $20 and receive swag.)

Specifically to institutions such as Stetson University, the value of giving at any level will need to be addressed through targeted education to current students, and then specific and consistent language across all communication platforms to alumni. The value proposition of philanthropy and transparency in how every gift, even a gift of $10, is being spent will be of utmost importance in activating and retaining new alumni donors.

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