3 Ways to Engage Your Young Alumni That Don’t Involve Asking for Money

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engaging young alumni

3 Ways to Engage Your Young Alumni That Don’t Involve Asking for Money

After spending six years on the philanthropic fundraising team at the University of Chicago, Lindsey Royer, Wisr’s Director of Customer Success, would tell you it became clear that an institution’s young alumni community is the foundation on which all current and future fundraising rests. The annual gifts from this group are critical to the success of your school’s campaign, but these “asks” often come with a risky bet: alienating your base of young prospects. Are you asking your young alumni to give back before you’ve given them anything of value? And no, the world-class education they received as a student doesn’t count.

If your young alumni are among the 44.2 million people with $1.4T in student loan debt, they’re probably a bit resentful every time they receive a phone call or email asking them to give back what little they might be earning.

A typical graduate of the Class of 2016 left their institution with more than $37K in debt, and an average starting salary of $48,270. This debt comes with an average monthly payment of $351. After taxes, that’s more than 10 percent of their monthly salary going to pay off loans. There’s not much left for a young alum to part with after making payments on loans, rent, food, transportation, and Netflix, of course.

Let’s cut to the chase: your young alumni probably don’t think they owe you anything. Recent grads see their late nights in the library studying for exams and writing papers as payment (with interest!) for the education they received. And if they struggled to find employment after all of that? Well…think carefully about your next step in engaging young alumni.

It’s critical to your advancement team’s efforts to treat each of your alumni, young or old like they are potential major gift prospects. Cultivate them the way you would a major gift prospect. Give them value and pull them into the fold.

Ok, so maybe you can’t invite every alum to a private dinner at the president’s home, but still, there are creative ways to communicate to young alumni that you value their relationship and donations of money, time, and skills.

Use These Strategies to Start Engaging Young Alumni Better

Engagement, by nature, is a give and take. It involves the sharing of value between all parties. As universities increasingly think about how to foster a culture of engagement among both students and alumni, new strategies for offering value first are being introduced. Here are a few suggestions to get your team thinking about ways to first provide value to your young alumni instead of the traditional but outdated initial donation request upon graduation:

  1. Ask them to come back to campus
    Coming back and participating in campus life in a meaningful way gives alums that warm, nostalgic feeling advancement teams dream of. More importantly, it helps keep your university – and your alums’ wonderful memories of it – top of mind. For some, returning to their college campuses may bring trepidation (none of my friends are here anymore, and everything is already starting to look different…), so making the first move and asking the alum to come back to campus can go a long way towards building a healthy post-grad relationship. Do your students have a favorite hangout spot or pizza joint on campus? Even better. Invite your alums to come back for a day or two and enjoy a pizza lunch on you.
  2. Ask them to share what they’ve learned about post-grad life with juniors and seniors
    This is where collaboration across departments, among staff and faculty members, is critical. De-centralize alumni engagement efforts from your Office of Alumni Relations by empowering your academic departments to invite alums back for career workshops, alumni panels, in-class discussions, etc. Ask young alumni not for money, but for a little bit of their time to share their experiences with students who are just trying to understand that next step after graduation. Let the staff and faculty who have the strongest relationships with an alum be the ones to invite them to speak to a group of students about finding their first job. The alum will likely be more responsive to this request if they have a relationship with the person reaching out. For example, one of my favorite professors at the University of Michigan invited me to share what I’ve learned about side hustles and work/life balance with her senior capstone class at the Ross School of Business. If the University of Michigan Career Services team had extended a similar invite, I probably would’ve said no. Because I had a strong relationship with the person extending the invitation, and because I had an affinity with the group I’d be speaking to, it was an easy yes. Oh, and when the University called me a week later to request a donation (coincidental timing, I think not), you better believe I donated.
  3. Ask them if they need help
    Ask them if they need help in finding a job. One University of Chicago alumna suggested that she’d be more likely to donate if her alma mater shifted their focus from soliciting donations to helping students and alumni find jobs. For young alumni that are struggling to find work or a better job, offer them a network of seasoned alumni who can help them get on the right track. Ask them how their first job is going. Ask them if they need any support in making a job or career change. Ask them if they need help meeting people in their new city. Ask them if there are any skills they could use help developing. Ask them pretty much anything else before you ask, “Are you ready to give back to the school that gave you so much?” Give them the help they need and then ask them to lend that same hand back to current students who are trying to figure it all out. Remember: lead by offering value, not by requesting it. If you do it right, the goodwill you foster will get you the results – financial and otherwise – that you’re after.

Young alumni want to feel like they’re getting something extra out of both the time and financial investment they’ve made at your school. Free events and open bars at alumni weekends are great, but they can be transactional and won’t garner the sort of affinity that leads to long-lasting and, ultimately, philanthropic relationships with your school.

Building a tight community of alumni with strong affinity doesn’t require an army of alumni relations professionals directing, connecting, and facilitating interactions. With the right tools, your Alumni Relations team can sit back and relax while Advancement reaps the invaluable engagement and affinity data to help them prioritize pipelines and fill prospect pools.

By investing in the non-monetary engagement of young alumni, you add value to the overall alumni community and increase the ROI in the long run. Having a warmer, more engaged young alumni population will lead to more of this group converting to donors, and at higher levels.

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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