From Prospective Student to Active Alum—Engagement Fosters Lifelong Support

When you hear the name of your alma mater, what feelings bubble up? What keeps you engaged? In our family, my husband, daughter, and I all have three very different perspectives.  

1. Engaged student and alum supporter:

My daughter gets very excited when she hears talk about the university she attended. That’s because her school did a great job of engaging her while she was still a student. A few years post-graduation, she continues to financially support and stay connected to her alma mater. She is among the mere 9% of alums who donate. Why? 

Her school engaged her from day one using technology and face-to-face interactions. When she toured the campus as a prospective student, she could feel the connection students had to the institution and each other. Her university highlighted the ways she could connect with other commuter students and even alums via social media, in-person events, and university eNewsletters.  

The university kept her engaged as life changed. When she switched from commuting to living on campus, the school was there to help welcome her to student housing, show her all the student resources, and involve her in campus life. She received social media messages informing her about new resources or if anything fun was happening on campus. Her senior year, she wanted to help others feel welcomed, so she became an RA and loved connecting with other students and university staff.

Faculty engaged her both inside and outside the classroom by providing feedback on assignments, encouraging her to step outside her comfort zone to acquire new skills, recommending extracurricular activities, and checking in on the progress she’s making towards her goals. They used technology designed for higher education along with personal interactions. She felt that she had a team behind her not only coaching her, but also collaborating for her success.   

She was able to engage with prospects and recent alums. While my daughter was a student, she and others were invited to visit and connect with alumni to check in, share their experiences, and invite them to financially support the university. She was also given opportunities to volunteer at various events and organizations where she was able to connect with prospective students and share how the school had already impacted her life. Alums often visited her classes to talk about their careers and ways to connect. She could see the impact of alum support, and she and her friends were excited about it. Today, the school continues to engage her in meaningful ways, not just as a donor, and she looks forward to being one of those visiting alums. 

2. Engaged student and alum turned non-supporter: 

My husband used to be very engaged with his university. He’d also get very excited when he heard talk of his alma mater—but he doesn’t anymore. 

Why? His university connected with him regularly when he was a student. He attended various alum lectures and could see the impact that donors made at the university. He met with alums and couldn’t wait until he graduated and could support the university, too. And he did support them financially, but that didn’t last very long.  

What changed? His excitement and financial support dwindled over the years because he only heard from his old university when they wanted a donation (and most of the time it was just an appeal and no show of appreciation or connection). He started feeling like an ATM instead of a valued alum. They didn’t continue to engage him after he graduated. If they had, he would have continued giving.

3. Unengaged student and alum:

I attended four schools between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. None of them did anything to engage me until after graduation—I received one survey and numerous appeals for donations. Don’t get me wrong. I had some great instructors, but I never felt an emotional connection to the schools.

The result? I’ve never felt compelled to support or donate to any of my alma maters. Supporting philanthropic organizations, whether I’m donating my time or money, is very important to me. I regularly volunteer for or donate to quite a few other organizations that have engaged me and kept me engaged. I just don’t feel the connection with my alma maters that I feel with other organizations. 

Is it too late to engage unengaged alums?

My friend Martha had a situation like mine. Martha’s alma mater didn’t engage her during school or after graduation. But years later, they realized and took steps to correct their error in not properly engaging students and alums. It took a lot more work to re-engage her than keeping her engaged would have, but Martha’s now an active alum and sustaining donor. What was the turning point? During a phonathon, a student called Martha and thanked her for being an alum. The student engaged Martha in a conversation about their majors, which turned out to be very similar. They talked about how the school had changed since she had graduated and how the school had impacted Martha’s life. At the end of the conversation, the student gently asked if Martha would consider donating. Martha did, and the student sent Martha a personalized thank you note.

Does engagement end with a donation? No, if her alma mater had ended there, Martha’s giving would have dried up, and she wouldn’t have gone on to be a regular attendee at reunions, a guest speaker in classes, or an advocate for her university. But her alma mater didn’t end there. They started sending Martha an eNewsletter customized to her major and her area of financial support. They send her a quarterly print magazine, and a regular publication that focuses on school alums who have published, recorded (music), and exhibited. They engage with Martha on Facebook and on Instagram (she follows them, and her alma mater follows her, too), and they keep her informed of upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. They send Martha regular statements for her sustaining gifts, little gifts in the school colors (a pin, a scarf, etc.), and thank you letters that show Martha the impact of her donation and participation. Martha will continue to be an active alum and donor, and I bet that student she talked to will be more motivated to support the school, too.  

My family’s and friend’s experiences echo the experiences of so many people we’ve talked with, surveyed, and listened to through social media, our various Blackbaud University classes, and of course, in the Blackbaud Community. If any of my alma maters connected with me like Martha ’s did, I would support them. But that isn’t the lesson here. The key takeaway is:

If you connect with students from the beginning and continue to engage them after graduation, you will optimize admissions and recruiting and increase financial and alum support.    

How can you best engage students and alums using technology and face-to-face engagement (with limited staffing and budget)? How do you encourage alum giving without treating them like ATMs? Do a favor for your students, alums, and staff, and start building that emotional connection today—and keep building it through targeted engagement strategies.

Blackbaud University can help.

Blackbaud University is here to help you not only learn more about your Blackbaud solutions, but also about organizational best practices. To learn more about connecting with your alums, check out the Education – Higher Education Alum Engagement course in the Organizational Best Practices Essentials learning path. To learn how to improve your fundraising through showing impact and stewarding your supporters, check out the Organizational Best Practices Fundraising learning path.

Remember that learning is a lifelong journey and it’s never too late for you to learn how to engage your students, your alums, and your supporters.

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