What's the effect on life-long alumni engagement when alumni are over-solicited?  New data shares the sobering results. 

About a 5 minute read.

Have you read this article? Is Alumni Relations Now Subordinate to Fundraising? 

It continues to generate a fair amount of discussion.

That article reported some VAESE survey data that doesn’t bode well for alumni relations programs, as it appears that engagement efforts are taking a back seat to the demands of development/ fundraising.

I believe the data suggests that at an increasing number of institutions, the development/fundraising office has been given carte blanche to solicit alumni as much and as often as they wish.

In essence, they'll use alumni like the institution's ATM, extracting as much cash as they can from alumni, ignoring the real costs and long-term consequences of over-soliciting.

Here are a few more VAESE survey results to fuel the discussion:

  • 82% of institutions send at least one gift solicitation to new grads within the first year of graduation.

But at many institutions, it doesn’t stop with just one solicitation. 

  • Nearly one-third of schools (30%) send three or more gift solicitations to new graduates during their first year as alums.
  • Even more astonishing is that 7% of schools send five or more solicitations to new graduates during their first year.

How’s that for getting a good start to a life-long relationship?

If you're a new graduate, what communication would you rather receive from your alma mater? Recurrent fundraising appeals aimed at shaming you to give, or ones that entice you to stay connected?  

The foregoing statistics underscore the importance of my first rule of alumni engagement: Patience and gentle persuasion are far more effective in building life-long relationships than repeatedly amplifying unwanted or unwelcomed messages. PERSUASIVE ALWAYS WINS OVER PERVASIVE.

While the VAESE survey data shows that many schools use aggressive fundraising tactics, I looked for evidence to show that it’s not as bad as it appears. That alumni engagement programs maintain an equal standing with fundraising in the overall institutional advancement process. But the data doesn’t support that supposition either.

Instead, these VAESE statistics prove my point:

  • 62% of alumni organizations are “not focused on offering alumni any significant benefits,” or instead they "appeal to the philanthropic generosity or loyalty of alumni/ae to (get them to) engage, join, or give.”

Too many institutions under-deliver on the promise of alumni benefits, when they should be over-delivering on benefits to keep alumni happy and engaged year after year.

Relying on alumni “philanthropic generosity” or “loyalty” will only work for so long.  Sooner or later, both alumni loyalty and generosity will dwindle, especially if that loyalty is not replenished.

For alumni, the value of being associated with their alma mater will diminish over time, or whenever they have a negative experience with the school. That includes such things as a poor customer service experience, paying for services they expect to be free (e.g. transcripts), unflattering media coverage, receiving irrelevant or annoying emails, and especially…receiving excessive and unwanted gift solicitations.

You add value by offering benefits like helping alumni build/expand their professional network, providing relevant and fun content (like blogs/social media/e-newsletters), delighting alumni with unexpected gifts or discount offers, winning a big game, delivering superior customer service, and helping alumni build their personal "brand" by recognizing their successes.   

Alumni loyalty can wear thin when your institution fails to offer any value to alumni other than their earned degree. Unchecked pleas for cash will eventually take a toll, and an increasing number of alumni, will end their relationship with their alma mater by opting out of communications.

Which leads to these revealing stats:

  • One in four institutions suffers from alumni opt-out rates as high as 15-39% annually.
  • In the past five years, alumni opt-out rates have not improved, or are getting worse at 41% of U.S. institutions.
  • 28% of alumni organizations admit they don’t track alumni opt-out rates.

Certainly, opt-out rates could be worse, but with one in four schools oblivious of their opt-out rates, the overall trend doesn’t look promising. And simply ignoring opt-out rates won't make alumni dissatisfaction go away either.

Expecting to cash in on perpetual alumni loyalty is not realistic or financially sustainable, especially if opt-out rates don’t improve. If you want a life-long relationship with your alumni, then deliver meaningful benefits that can incentivize their engagement.

And finally this warning:  If you work at an institution where you believe alumni fundraising appeals are out-of-control, speak up and encourage restraint. You may be a lonely voice, but someone needs to speak on behalf of your alumni and advocate for fewer solicitations until alumni are better engaged and properly cultivated to be life-long givers.

As always, I welcome your comments.


BTW: The full results of the VAESE alumni benchmarking survey can be downloaded free here.

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Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni

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For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.

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