Higher ed institutions are often struggling in their attempts to connect with young alumni and millennial graduates in order to cultivate them as potential donors, according to a new report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz. According to Caryn Stein, the organization’s vice president of marketing, part of the issue stems from institutions not individualizing their attempts to cultivate their most recent graduates.
“Even though this is such a challenge, we haven’t seen fundraisers adapt a specific approach to this population,” she said. “There’s an opportunity there, but it will require a shift in the approach.”
The report, titled “Advancement Leaders Speak: Digital and Millennial Engagement Tactics and Strategies,” found that 80% of higher ed institutions reported they were not using communications campaigns specifically targeted towards young alumni, and only one-third of institutions reported they had committed to donor surveying the past three years which included a survey of their young alumni. Stein and Brian Gawor, the organization's vice president for research, noted that the percentage of young alumni who give to their alma maters had either remained flat or decreased in the past year; Stein pointed out that higher ed institutions were competing for those graduates’ dollars in a more crowded marketplace, with increased solicitations from charitable groups and nonprofit organizations. The survey was conducted with 249 “giving professionals” this past July, with a fairly even split between public and private higher ed institutions.
Gawor said young millennial donors are particularly interested in understanding the tangible impact of their gift, versus Baby Boomer and Generation X alumni, who may be more willing to give out of tradition. Gawor said this could pose a challenge for colleges and universities, as they were likely to be in direct competition with charities that have more skill and experience about attractively and accurately illustrating the impact of a gift. He noted that digital communications could be effective, but the number of colleges personalizing their outreach was extremely low. Most donor messages included the giver’s name and their giving history, but Stein said only 3% of respondents reported that they personalized their communications based on things the donor had read or been interested in, missing a chance to reach younger alumni.
“It’s no longer an option for colleges and universities; the expectation has been set for this generation to have personalized communication….and see the impact of a gift,” she said. “They’re used to seeing that with everything they do.”
Respondents told RNL that budget cuts and a lack of needed staff often inhibited their progress in attracting younger donors, along with feeling that these initiatives need to begin on a smaller scale. However, an overwhelming percentage of institutions reported using e-mail solicitation for donors in the previous year, with half of the respondents reporting they had done some type of crowdfunding during that period.
Gawor said crowdfunding has proven to be particularly effective for institutions, particularly if those campaigns were personalized. Surprisingly, crowdfunding campaigns based upon participation rather than ones that set a dollar goal proved to be more successful in raising money. Gawor said younger donors could find it difficult to consider themselves as a percentage of a dollar goal, particularly when they can only give something like $100 in support of a $10,000 goal. However, donors could find it much easier to consider themselves “the next person to give” if participating in the campaign is framed as the goal (this can also be helpful when dealing with younger donors who may have less to give due to higher student debt and comparatively lower income compared to older alumni).
“Institutions are primarily focusing on an activity index….how many of these emails got delivered and how many we sent out, instead of how many go through the donation page?” he said. “Concentrating on activity metrics rather than conversion metrics is a significant burden to fundraisers.”
The report recommended that institutions seek to develop campaigns personalized around the interests of young alumni, and to consider investing time in engaging those donors (and keeping them engaged) with content they would find interesting even if the school waits to begin asking for gifts. Stein also stressed the importance of not keeping donor strategies in silos; often, there was not one particular approach that would lead to the start of a donor’s support of their alma mater, but a collection of thoughtful approaches.
“Very few institutions are measuring that synergy. What we find are the institutions we work with...they have a robust menu of giving options and they’re providing those to donors through that journey,” she said. “They make donors feel great about giving and feel like they are part of a community.”