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Are You Engaging Your Alumni Beyond Asking for Money?

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Are You Engaging Your Alumni Beyond Asking for Money?

How would you feel if after presenting the check for your meal your server stopped by to request you leave a generous tip for the fantastic service he or she provided you? Sure, it was a great service, but it wouldn’t be surprising if your reaction included some degree of insult at the server’s boldness. When you receive great service, leaving a gracious tip doesn’t feel like an obligation — it feels like an authentic gesture of gratitude for the value provided during your experience.

That same level of shock you might feel is what many young alumni feel when they begin to receive donation requests from their alma maters. No sooner had I taken my last final did I receive a donation request in the mail. I’m certainly not alone, either. Asking for money before students even leave campus has become a well-known practice. About ten years ago, the idea that most major donors give a gift in the first year after graduation began to take hold of the development community. But just because something is a well-known practice doesn’t make it a best practice. Jonathon Meer, an economist at Texas A&M University, and Harvey S. Rosen, an economist at Princeton University, found that alumni with loans shy away from donating less because they literally don’t have the money and due to what they call the “annoyance effect”.

Asking Alumni for Money Can Be Damaging to Your Engagement Levels — Here’s Why

From a senior or barely-graduated alum’s perspective, there are a number of reasons why hastily asking alumni for money may result in the damaging “annoyance effect”:

  • I’m already sending you money every month for my student loans. Aren’t I paying you enough money already?
  • I’m still determining what my return on investment for going to college will be. The university hasn’t proved its value to me yet
  • I’m living at home, still looking for a job. Please don’t add insult to injury by asking me to send you money when one of the main value propositions of college — getting a job — has not yet been realized for me
  • I just started my new job. Sure, I’m making good money, but moving to a new city, buying a professional wardrobe, etc. is expensive. Let me feel more financially stable before I start giving back
  • Since when does paying money for a service mean that I must give you a lifetime of loyalty?
  • I wouldn’t donate to my public high school, so why would I donate to my public university?
  • You are so relentless in trying to call me that I now actively avoid picking up the phone when I receive a call from the university’s area code

This is not to say that alumni donations are not important. Most universities rely on asking alumni for money to operate. Alumni participation rates can have a significant impact on institutional reputation: U.S. News & World Report considers undergraduate alumni participation rates a barometer of alumni satisfaction and factors them into its rankings. Higher education institutions, however, may stand to benefit from considering what ongoing value they provide to alumni (and not just what value they provided to them as students) before bombarding them by asking for money. There are several ways an alum could gain ongoing value from engaging with his or her alma mater:

  1. My alma mater can connect me to people and/or opportunities through professional, academic, and social networks
  2. If I donate to my university, it will boost their ranking, and I will benefit from increased prestige in the job market
  3. It makes me feel good to donate money to my university
  4. It makes me feel good to donate time to my university
  5. It makes me feel good to donate my skills to my university

Before the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, alumni associations and alumni relations programs were expertly positioned to serve as the sole hub of alumni relationship-building. But with higher education getting so expensive, the sheer volume of free or affordable online learning resources, and more opportunities for alumni to connect without going through a university-affiliated program, universities will need to do a better job of providing value to their alumni… and not just requesting it.

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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