by Jeff Small
I was driving through a college campus a couple of weeks ago and got to witness the annual migration of young people into the exciting world of higher education. That’s right, it is already that time of year again. Freshman and their parents are wandering around, campus maps in hand, unloading the family SUV and dragging posters, bean bag chairs, laptops, and arm loads of other nonsense into countless dorms on countless campuses across the country.
For college administrators, this time is one of excitement and hope. It is a new infusion of energy into your learning community – a new crop of campus leaders and future notable alumni. What shouldn’t be overlooked however, is that these are also your institution’s future donors, and the effort to engage them needs to be as intentional and immediate as your efforts to welcome them to campus.
The reality is that on average only 1 in 10 alums of American colleges and universities made gifts to their alma mater last year. Young alums are an even more elusive group to capture. They are graduating in debt and having trouble findings jobs. Some find it difficult to feel grateful to institutions whose tuition costs are rising faster than inflation even if they had a positive undergraduate experience. Many view their degree not as an entrance into a loyal and connected community, but as a transaction for which they have been duly billed.
The challenge, then, for advancement programs and colleges in general is to find ways to communicate to students that their education is not simply bought and paid for by their bursar bills, but is the product of ongoing sacrificial giving by those who believe that XYZ university makes a positive difference in the world. This understanding and the gratitude it fuels are the foundation of future giving. There are several approaches that can position your students to be active donors:
- Give them an education for which they will be grateful. You have a captive audience for four years. Consider this the longest most intense prospective donor visit your department will ever have. Provide a life-changing educational experience, and your students will be more likely to see the power of providing that opportunity to others now, and in the future.
- Be transparent about institutional finances and the resources that make the college experience possible. Students need to understand while they are still on campus that their experiences aren’t subsidized purely by tuition dollars. Invite them into discussions about your institution’s priorities and aspirations, and more importantly, the resources that have made and will make them a reality.
- Provide opportunities for engagement and giving while students are still on campus. Ideally, your institution needs to create a consistent and coherent community of supporters that includes students, alumni, and friends. Institutions with a strong community identity generally see better results in fundraising, so to the degree possible involve students as you would alumni in advancement efforts. Ask their advice. Recruit them to be advocates. Ask them for support. Invite them to events. In doing so, you establish participation as a community norm, build connections between students and alumni, and eliminate the clumsy transition from beneficiary to supporter.
While it is a couple of years old, I encourage you to read an article written for Academic Impressions in 2011 on the subject. It has some good examples and insights on the subject to spark your thinking.