From Prospective Student to Active Alumni, Engagement Fosters Lifelong Support

When you hear the name of your alma mater, what feelings bubble up? What keeps you engaged? In our family, my husband, daughter, and I all have three very different perspectives.  

1. Engaged current student and future alumni supporter:

My daughter gets very excited when she hears talk about the university she’s attending. That’s because her university has done a great job of engaging her while she’s still a student. After graduation next year, she plans on financially supporting and staying connected to her alma mater. She will be one of the 26.3% of donors who were students or graduating seniors (Source: 2017 donorCentrics® Annual Report on Higher Education Alumni Giving). 

Why? My daughter’s school has engaged her from day one  using technology and face-to-face interactions. As she toured the campus, she could feel the connection students had to the institution  and each other. Her university highlighted the ways she could connect with other commuter students and even alumni via social media, in–person events, and  university eNewsletters.  

The university has kept my daughter engaged as life has changed. Last summer, she switched from commuting to living on campus, and the school was there to help welcome her to the student housing, show her all the student resources, and involve her in  campus life. She gets social media messages informing her about new resources or if anything fun is happening at her residence or on campus.   

Faculty engage her both inside and outside the classroom by providing feedback on assignments, encouraging her to step outside her comfort zone to acquire new skills, recommending extracurricular activities, and checking in on the progress she’s making towards her goals. This makes  her feel that she has a team behind her, collaborating for her success.   

Current alumni have been key to keeping her engaged. They often visit her classes to talk about their careers and ways to connect if students have questions. Another key to her alumni engagement happened when she was hired for a term as a student fundraiser, where she called alumni and chatted about her major and her school experience—and softly asked for donations. She could see the impact of alumni support and could help get alumni (and herself and her friends) excited about it, too. She also sees a way to contribute now.  Current students are invited to visit and recruit at local high schools as  brand ambassadors, sharing their meaningful experiences.  This gives her the opportunity to tell her story of  how her school has already impacted her life. 

2. Engaged student and alumni turned non-supporter: 

My husband used to be very engaged with his university. He’d also get very excited when he heard talk of his alma mater—but he doesn’t anymore. 

Why? His university connected with him regularly when he was a student. He attended various alumni lectures and could see the impact that donors made at the university. He met with alumni and couldn’t wait until he graduated and could support the university, too. And he did support them financially, but that didn’t last very long.  

What changed? His excitement and financial support dwindled over the years because he only hears from his old university  when they want a donation. He started feeling like an ATM instead of a valued alumnus.  They didn’t continue to engage him after he graduated. If they had continued to engage him, he would have continued giving —just like the 80% of alumni that have remained connected to their school still give (Source: 2016 Burk Donor Survey). 

3. Unengaged student and alumni:

I attended four schools between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. None of them did anything to engage me until after graduation—I received  one survey and numerous appeals for donations. Don’t get me wrong. I had some great teachers, but I never felt an emotional connection to the schools. I’m one of the 82% of alumni who aren’t emotionally connected to my alma mater (Source: Gallup, September 2016). 

The result? I’ve never felt compelled to support or donate to any of my alma maters. Supporting philanthropic organizations, whether I’m donating my time or money, is very important to me. I regularly volunteer for or donate to quite a few other organizations who have engaged me and kept me engaged. I just don’t feel the connection with my alma maters that I feel with other organizations. 

So, is it too late to engage unengaged alumni?   

My friend Martha had a situation similar to mine. Martha’s alma mater didn’t engage her during school or after graduation. But years later, they righted their wrongs. It took a lot more work to re-engage her than keeping her engaged  would have, but Martha’s now an active alumni and sustaining donor. What was the turning point? During an alumni phonathon, a student phoned Martha and thanked her for being  an alumna. The student engaged  Martha in a conversation about their majors, which turned out to be very similar.  They talked about how the school had changed since my friend had graduated and how the school had impacted Martha’s life. At the end of the conversation, the student gently asked if Martha would consider donating.  Martha did, and the student sent Martha a  personalized  thank you note.  

Does engagement end with a donation? No, if her alma mater had ended there,  Martha’s giving would have dried up and she wouldn’t have gone on to be a regular attendee at alumni reunions, a guest speaker in classes, or an advocate for her university. But her alma mater didn’t end there. They started sending  Martha an eNewsletter customized to her major and her area of financial support. They send her a monthly print magazine, and a regular publication that focuses on school alumni who have been published, recorded (music), and exhibited. They engage with  Martha on Facebook and on Instagram (she follows them, and her alma mater follows her, too) and they keep her informed of upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. They send Martha monthly statements for her sustaining gifts and involvement, little gifts in the school colors (a pin and a scarf), and letters that say thank you and show Martha the impact of her donation and participation. Martha will be an active alumni and donor until the day she dies, and I bet that student she talked to will be more motivated to support the school, too.  

My family’s and friend’s experiences echo the experiences of so many people we’ve talked with, surveyed, and listened to through social media, our various Blackbaud University classes, and of course, in the  Blackbaud Community. If any of my alma maters connected with me like Martha ’s did, I would support them. But that isn’t the lesson here. The key takeaway is:

If you connect with students from the beginning and continue to engage them after graduation, you will optimize admissions and recruiting across the country and increase financial and alumni support.    

But how can you best engage students and alumni using technology and face-to-face engagement (with limited staffing and budget)? How do you encourage alumni giving without treating them like ATMs? Do a favor for your students, alumni, and staff, and start building that emotional connection today—and keep building it through targeted engagement strategies.  

And learn even more about how to successfully engage alumni with Blackbaud University’s new  Organizational Best Practices: Education—Alumni Engagement workshop. We not only dive into how to engage students and alumni, but how to implement and manage the engagement using thought leadership best practices.