In their letter, they were like, “Hey, it’s been a while since you’ve given us money.” And I was like, “Hey, it’s been a while since you housed and taught me!” – John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous
Anna winces as she picks up the phone; while she doesn’t recognize the number, she knows to be suspicious about evening calls coming from this area code. As soon as she answers, a nervous voice on the other end launches into a scripted spiel. “Ms. Nordlund! My name is Craig, and I work for the development office at your university. As a successful graduate, I was hoping that you could share some of your expertise with me today.”
She’s been through this many times before: the disingenuous request for advice, the pause-free monologue about new university programs, the series of nested donation requests, the pre-written responses that make it impossible to say no without being overtly rude. “I’m so sorry,” she purrs into the phone. “I’d love to talk, but I’ve just sat down to dinner with my family. Would you mind calling back another time?”
It’s true, at least this time: her husband and two children are all seated around the dinner table, intently tearing into their plates of lasagna. But she has also learned to have some plausible lies on hand for the occasions when they change up their routine and call her at 2 p.m.
“Why are you always being so nice to them?” her husband Don asks as soon as he has swallowed a mouthful. “They’re just going to keep bothering you until you tell them to leave you alone.”
Anna pauses. It’s not a question she’s ever been forced to articulate an answer to before. “I don’t know, I just – I had some really good experiences in college, and I like the idea of supporting them. But right now I haven’t even finished paying off my student loans, and when we have something set aside for charity there are always causes that I think are more important. I love the idea of giving back when we have more money. And maybe it’s silly, but I worry that I need them to keep bugging me, or I won’t remember to donate when our financial situation is better.”
Don sighs and turns his gaze back to the food in front of him. “Have you considered just setting a reminder for yourself ten years from now? Think of all the interrupted dinners you’d be saving yourself.”
Given that most college graduates don’t immediately become financially prosperous once they receive a degree, it’s a bit absurd that so many universities start hitting them up for money as soon as they’re out the door. Most will want to focus on priorities such as getting out of student loan and credit card debt, buying a house and even raising children, so it’s unlikely that many will become significant donors until they’re in their 40s or 50s. While harassing them in the meantime has the obvious potential to be counterproductive, a perceptive column in The Guardian points out that “waiting 20 years to re-engage with former students wastes 20 years of potential fruitful engagement.” The author suggests leveraging younger alumnis’ willingness to provide non-financial assistance through mentoring current students and providing career networking opportunities.
In fact, it appears that a growing number of universities are concentrating their efforts (and development budgets) on career advancement services, which among other benefits (such as convincing prospective students about the value of a degree) provides a way to mobilize twenty- and thirty-something alums as they move upward in their jobs. But given troubling statistics about how much alumni networks actually help graduates with their careers, universities should consider diversifying their approach and viewing this demographic of “pre-charitable” alumni through more than just a networking lens.
Younger alumni need to maintain a connection with their universities if they are to be expected to provide large-scale financial assistance in the future, and even some small donations right now. The best way to prepare them to open up their wallets is to convince them that being engaged alumni – and preferably dues-paying members of alumni organizations – leads to benefits in their daily lives. Doing this correctly requires sound strategy, but it doesn’t require a huge budget. It’s mostly a matter of identifying what services graduates want from their alma maters.
Students spend some of their most formative years with their university acting as their window to world events, so it makes sense for institutions of higher learning to leverage their brands as purveyors of reliable information. Web portals and email newsletters can be great for keeping alumni up to date on new hires, building projects, research breakthroughs and so on. But where universities can most effectively go beyond their own campuses to engage with grads is through alumni magazines.
As far back as 2004, the New York Times noted a trend in which universities and their alumni organizations were creating magazines that were more visually appealing and easier to read, seeking to become valued sources of entertainment for graduates. It also mentioned that many schools were experimenting with making such magazines available to all graduates rather than making them exclusive perks for dues-paying members of alumni organizations. While accessibility is a worthwhile goal, the risk here is that magazines can come off as glossy advertisements for the school.
Taking an independent journalistic stance is one of the most impactful ways for a magazine to distinguish itself as suitable reading material. “The best university magazines are the ones that have the most ability to report honestly and comprehensively about their schools, because readers are smart and they know when they are fed a line,” says Sue De Pasquale, editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, in the NYT article. She cites a 2002 cover story critically reporting upon a death that occurred during a university medical research study. Sometimes this approach can risk creating a rift between the university itself and its alumni organization: Baylor University founded Baylor Magazine even though The Baylor Line already existed for alumni, leading to questions over whether the school was trying to wrest control of its brand narrative away from the independent publication.
These days, alumni magazines need more than good design choices and punchy articles to stand out. Unsurprisingly, many publications are looking to high-tech solutions in order to get ahead. Columbia University maintains a mobile app and dedicated social media pages for its magazine, while Bentley University puts scannable interactive features on its print pages. Some magazines develop their own podcasts, while The Kenyon Review takes a different approach by focusing on long-form essays to impart an air of prestige. By going beyond campus updates and delving into respectable journalism, alumni magazines offer the opportunity for schools to continue to shape the interests and worldviews of former students.
Given that college graduates tend to think of their alma maters as key to their intellectual development, universities are well placed to engage with alumni by providing opportunities for continuing education. Many institutions allow alums to borrow books from campus libraries, audit physical classes and take online courses either for free or for a discounted rate. Doing so allows graduates to feel that their tuition payments are still bearing intellectual fruit, and it may cause them to feel indebted to the university once their finances are in better shape.
The popularity of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has led elite universities to use such courses as a means to build alumni engagement. From encouraging alums to take courses from prominent faculty members, to offering exclusive course features to alumni, even developing alumni-only courses, schools are effectively reaching out to bring graduates back into the (digital) classroom.
Universities can also aid the career advancement of alumni by looking beyond networking to provide professional development opportunities. By offering spaces and courses for alumni to attain new career-oriented skills and qualifications, schools can help graduates to achieve more and to fill educational gaps, retroactively enhancing the perceived value of the degree they attained. There are even programs to help alumni reenter the workforce after leaving to raise children. Younger alumni will greatly appreciate these interventions on behalf of their career goals and will be much more likely to give something back in return as they become wealthier.
Services like lifelong email addresses, exclusive banking services and an array of discounts are common perks that grads expect when they join an alumni organization. But they also tend to want a sense of community, and cultivating one doesn’t have to require huge expenditures on the part of the university. Sponsoring weekly or monthly events like bike rides, outdoor excursions and happy hours with a public signup for any alumni who happen to be in town is a low-impact way to keep them engaged, and it has the advantage of not scaring off graduates who might worry about being hit up for cash at a college reunion or fundraiser.
Of course, reunions feature the advantage of getting alums onto campus for a curated experience that emphasizes the institution’s growth and the accomplishments of faculty and students alike. For those who aren’t able to make it all the way back to their alma mater, coordinated meetups around the world offer a similar sense of connection for alumni, not to mention an appreciation of the school’s global reach.
The alumni-student mentoring opportunities mentioned earlier do more than just keep graduates connected with their alma maters. When managed correctly, they position the university as a central hub for professional and civic ties. Numerous programs enlist alumni to counsel current students or recently graduated entrepreneurs. The law school at Brigham Young University has even partnered with online dating service Match.com to more effectively pair students with alumni in the field.
One point which our corresponding survey article reinforces is that the single biggest avenue for alumni engagement is college sports, so why fix something that isn’t broken? Universities and alumni associations should continue to connect with former students through alumni game tickets, stadium ceremonies, tailgates and sports bar meetups in far-flung cities. Tapping into the excitement they felt during their college years – and having a reason to set foot on campus and see all the recent improvements – is how many younger alumni remain devoted to universities even while their budgets are still tight.
One of the key points of engaging with younger and less wealthy alumni is to tone down the sales pitch. Left to their own devices, university development departments will always look to aggressively boost their revenues from year to year, but grads who constantly worry about being solicited for donations are liable to distance themselves from alumni networks. What schools should be working on is offering former students enriching experiences with a low bar to access. Alumni should be able to drop in casually, either physically or digitally, and be reminded periodically why they attended college in the first place. Playing this long game effectively will keep their alma maters entrenched in their hearts, and it will make them not just willing but enthusiastic about opening their wallets once their finances are in order.