12 Ways to Energize Alumni Fundraising
12 Ways to Energize Alumni Fundraising
Alumni fundraising should be easy, right? After all, charitable donations to colleges reached an all-time high of nearly $38 billion in 2014, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Alumni across the country seem to be in a giving mood.
However, upon closer examination, you’ll find that while donations were up in most categories, a huge chunk of the total was brought in by a small group of colleges and universities. In fact, the top 20 listings brought in more than $10 billion. That means that under 2 percent of the 1,000 institutions that participated in the Council’s Voluntary Support of Education survey earned almost 30 percent of the donations given to higher education institutions that year.
So why do so many alumni fundraising programs come up short while others are setting records? The answer lies, in part, in the fact that the best fundraising efforts take their work very, very personally.
Generic messages just don’t resonate anymore. If you want to fundraise like the most successful colleges in the country, you’ll need to build lasting relationships with supporters. You’ll need to get the attention of the kind of donors who contribute over and over. It may be time to take another look at personalized direct mail.
Why personalized direct mail? Consider that 21% of respondents in a YouGov Giving Report cited direct mail as the primary prompt for their most recent donation. Pair that with the fact that personalization can increase direct mail response rates by 8%, 12% or even higher and you have a compelling reason to include personalized direct mail in your alumni fundraising efforts.
Intelligencer has years of experience helping colleges and universities with their alumni relations and fundraising campaigns. We asked our in-house college marketing team to share their advice. Here are some of the strategies they recommend.
- Stop asking for money. Okay, don’t completely stop, but stop asking in every communication. A consultant polled hundreds of alumni from all types of universities and found almost all respondents view an email, phone call or direct mail piece from their alma mater as an ask for money BEFORE they even open it. This dynamic needs to change.
- Send news without appeals. While many colleges use successes as an excuse to ask for money, few promote them as a way to deepen alumni relationships. Create a newsletter or direct mail campaign that provides updates of successes, and stories alumni want to hear. Foster the relationship and work to create an emotional affinity for the school before you ask them to take out their wallet.
- Don’t send mixed messages. If you followed our advice above, you’ll have a well-developed way to share all kinds of institutional news. That means you can now focus your appeal letters on just one objective – a clear ask for support with a clear cause. Tell them how their donation will be used. If you’ve been sharing news in other ways, the stand-alone request for a donation won’t seem pushy or abrupt.
- Connect donations to specific initiatives. Once you’ve shared a success, for example a sports championship, follow up with a request for a specific purpose, such as the athletics fund, to support things like sports scholarships, the field house renovation or improved student fitness facilities. Connecting the donation to specific initiatives will help donors get excited about the impact their contributions will make. Some donors are motivated by emotional connections while others seek tangible benefits.
- Use photos of people. Many college campuses have impressive architecture, however photos of people capture more attention and elicit more emotion. For each target group, it is wise to have an image that would appeal to that specific cause. If you are trying to raise money for the athletic department, then you would see more of a response showing images of real student athletes. It’s a good idea to hire a professional photographer that can take shots on campus, with real people, showing real emotion. You will see the return on your investment.
- Be clear about timelines. In any donation request, it’s important to assign a goal for the initiative. It’s also effective to assign a deadline for the fundraising drive. Deadlines communicate urgency and increase engagement.
- Recommend spending levels. Before you begin this process, it’s absolutely important to have target data. It will help you understand the market and the appetite for donating. That being said, humans are social beings. It makes sense that we tend to take our decision-making cues from the actions of others … Especially when it comes to philanthropy. When you give donors suggested contribution levels, you increase their comfort by showing them what a typical donation looks like. And it’s okay to have fun with the top level. One of our favorite fund-raising mailers listed several smaller donation amounts and added a top-tier box which read “What!? You want to contribute even more? You’re the best!”
- Offer payment plans. It’s hard to donate a big lump sum. It’s easier to budget a series of small monthly payments. While you may lose some money to attrition, you’ll more than make up for it in volume of donors upfront.
- Get personal. In all alumni communications, you should be using personalized communications. No one ever wants to feel like a number. This is especially true when receiving communication from an alma mater. Greet the donor by name and ask for the donation by name. If you’d like to call the donor by name in other places, consider using their name in the “thank you” line and even the postscript. Message personalization will help you see conversions. Trust us.
- Get even more personal. Go beyond name and graduation year. You probably know what the alumni’s major was and which activities they participated in. Use this information to create a specific appeal to fund areas of their interest. The more personal you get, the more of an emotional tie the recipient will feel and the more likely you are to get a donation.
- Speak in the first person. Use “You” and “I” in your contribution request. Speaking in the first person continues building the relationship by making yourself a part of the conversation. Rather than telling potential donors how the school will use the money, say “I’d like to tell you how your gift will be used,” or “I would like to invite you to contribute.” In doing so, you become an approachable entity—someone just as real as the donor. That personalization goes a long way toward creating rapport.
- Thank the alumni personally. If the recipient reads to the end of the letter, they already deserve your thanks for their attention. Don’t wait until they dig out their wallets and checkbooks to show gratitude. That sincere “thank you”, by name, for continued support is not only good manners, it might just be what the potential donor needs to take the next step.
Want more donation dollars for your college or university? Contact us. We’ll help you make every penny spent on direct mail a return on your investment.
Intelligencer works with dozens of colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Delaware and New Jersey to provide creative print communication that attracts students, engages alumni and informs constituents. We are a sponsor and active member of University & College Designers Association (UCDA).