One of the challenges facing academic fundraisers is maintaining engagement with fresh-faced alumni as they build their careers and develop their capacity to contribute. Philanthropy is truly all about engagement. As an academic leader, you play an important role in developing and maintaining relationships with students and alumni. Because you are an educator, you are interested in your students and care deeply about their success. Your efforts in relationship-building will pay dividends for both you and your students on many fronts. One of those benefits may be a desire on the part of your former students to give back to the institution that nurtured their academic and personal development and set them on their path to professional success.
In addition to what you naturally do to take to create meaningful relationships with young alumni, what specific strategies will help to deepen their engagement after graduation?
1. Create a family feeling
Start by building faculty and staff who have a heart for teaching and engaging with students. That “family feeling” is important for welcoming and retaining undergraduates—and it is also beneficial for keeping graduates connected with the institution. Creating a department, unit, or program that is open and welcoming encourages frequent and steady engagement during an undergrad’s tenure and beyond.
“The way I run the program, in general, is as if we were one big family. When I hire people, I really look to see that they want to be part of that. We care a lot about our students, and we want them to know that.”
2. Maintain the family feeling
Graduates embark to careers all over the country and world, but don’t let their enthusiasm for your academic institution and program slip away with their departure. Keep them connected by inviting them back—and not just for Homecoming. Leverage their experiences by asking them to share with undergraduates. What is that first year of graduate school like? What important tips and tricks can they share for successfully landing that first job? What did they find to be most valuable in their undergraduate experience? Former students can share their experiences both in-person and virtually. Beyond addressing undergraduates about their experiences, consider tapping alumni to serve as critics for group projects or judges for student contests.
If a student communicates gratitude for all that you’ve done for them, it is important to respond in kind with your own expression of thanks. Pen a quick note to them or pick up the phone to let your student know that having them in your class or program was a wonderful experience for you, too.
“Inviting them back signals to them, ‘You know, they still like me. They still want me.’ So, when they’ve finished with grad school, when they become a physician assistant or enter another professional field and they write back, ‘It meant so much to me’—now I can reach out more seriously. Now they’re going to maybe have some money to donate. So, we try not to lose touch with them when they first leave.”
3. Leverage social media
While informative posts about the happenings in your college, department, or unit that alumni might enjoy through the lens of nostalgia are important, think about developing a social media plan that showcases the big, hairy, audacious ideas of your area that will impact the future. Millennials and Gen Zers are tuned in to causes and relish working together to make a difference. They may not yet have the financial means to support your funding priorities, but they aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves to provide some sweat equity when they feel strongly about a cause.
Both generations—especially Millennials—embrace teamwork. If they are fired up about your area’s work, they will likely share information and opportunities to become involved with their network of friends and colleagues. While their ability to contribute is still percolating, young grads may have individuals in their professional and social networks who have the capability to make significant contributions now.
4. Lead by example
Even if your philanthropic budget is small, set aside some dollars to support your department, area, or program. Making a financial commitment to your own program sets the tone for other donors and potential donors and for your faculty. Inviting financial commitment is much easier when you have skin in the game.
“One of the things I always say to my immediate faculty—one of the reasons I find it so important that we all give—is how can we ask somebody else to give if we don’t give? I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, I love what we do here and this place, and I want to give back to this place.’”
5. Don’t go it alone
Your development partner likely has many more ideas about how to engage young alumni. Meet regularly to share names of students who remain engaged. Your development partner can help you develop and implement strategies for more deeply involving graduates with your program. Whether that relationship matures into one of financial support is only a small part of what that alum can ultimately bring to you and your program. Their enthusiasm will touch many lives, including yours.
“We’re all human. Can I just reach out and touch a life? That’s been a good return on our investment—treating people well has done well for us in trying to raise money.”
Learn how to engage more effectively with alumni and other potential donors—boost your “philanthropy quotient” by attending a session of Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders with your development partner.