By Cara Quackenbush
Principal Analyst for Development and Managing Director, Research & Data
So you’ve finally done it. You’ve galvanized volunteers. Energized your staff. Wowed the board of trustees. Channeled unparalleled alumni engagement. Never before has your institution seen such a big jump in its alumni participation rate in a single year. But as the celebrations come to a close and your weary staff faces the blank page of a new fiscal year, you find yourself asking … now what?
And you would not be alone. Over the past decade colleges and universities of all stripes have struggled with a truly stunning national decline in alumni participation rates: More than a third fewer alumni make a gift of any size to their alma mater today compared with alumni 10+ years ago. Increased enrollments, demographic changes and the economy, among other things, have all taken a rapid and difficult-to-reverse toll. At the same time, unprecedented pressure has been placed on advancement leaders to do just that.
No doubt, this set of circumstances has spurred a growing number of institutions to make creative and innovative changes in their annual giving programs that the rest of us can learn from. In many cases, these efforts have led to substantial increases in alumni participation rates at a number of several institutions across the country … at least for a year or two.
Recent Eduventures research has confirmed that while aggressive participation efforts are undoubtedly effective, sustaining that success remains elusive. More often than not, organizations that are able to achieve gains of as much as 2-3% or more in a single year find themselves victims of their own success the next. After the celebration ends, many are left to grapple with substantially increased (and often unrealistic) stakeholder expectations, exhausted staff and volunteers, fatigued alumni who now feel they’ve done their part, and no real strategy for what comes next. Falling back in the following year (or two) can be demoralizing.
Avoid the Pitfalls
When setting annual giving goals for alumni participation, our work with clients suggests that colleges and universities should be aware of the following common pitfalls:
- Basing goals predominantly on benchmarks. In the absence of industry standards for setting appropriate participation goals, many organizations find themselves grasping at benchmarks as a guide. These can be either external—based on aspirant universities considered “peers.” Or, they can be internal—based on increasingly distant memories of participation rates in the “glory days.” While benchmarks have their place, they have proven not to be the best driver of participation goals.
- Taking it one year at a time. Our research indicates that annual rate gains of more than 1% (yes, just 1%) are generally not sustainable for more than a year or two at a time, and yet, it seems that the most aggressive participation strategies are often only this deep. Those institutions that were able to inch up more slowly over time (at rates of less than 1%)—even planning for years of flat growth—have found these gains to be more sustainable over longer periods.
- Allowing rankings to drive overall strategy. The U.S. News and World Report rankings have undoubtedly grabbed the attention of Presidents and boards of trustees. But in an effort to please these stakeholders, singular pursuit of undergraduate participation appears to be crowding out other forms of pipeline building—like tapping graduate students, online learners or other growing constituent populations—that over the long term, could pay off.
The good news is that trend and case study analysis has provided greater insight into a more sustainable way forward: Understanding how your unique institutional characteristics play a role, taking a more holistic approach to annual giving strategy and communicating more clearly with stakeholders are just a few examples of good places to start.