A group of graduating students jumping in celebration

What next? The key messages for new alumni

In Education by Tom Cannon

For the first time in history, philanthropic donations to UK universities has exceeded £1bn a year. Almost a third of that (£322m) came from alumni, which is much higher than more non-alumni individuals (£149m) and companies (£82m). It’s clear that alumni giving is one of the key fundraising sources for most universities and any efforts to increase this area of funding should be considered. In this blog post, we take a look at the importance of new alumni – those that have recently left – could be better targeted to eventually become valuable donors in the future.

Why young alumni matter

While sometimes overlooked, recent graduates offer an excellent opportunity for alumni departments. Even if they don’t currently donate their time, expertise or money, simply increasing engagement and fostering the relationship is vital and may, in time, translate.

It makes far more sense to establish the relationship immediately, as opposed to trying to reengage five or ten years down the line when they have been graduated for some time and their university experience feels like a lifetime ago. While these former students aren’t exactly cold prospects, if they haven’t engaged with the university since graduating, creating a mutually beneficial relationship is going to be much more challenging. Instead, engage with recent graduates, keep them in the loop and nurture an active connection.

Of course, new graduates are less likely to make donations than more mature alumni that are established in their careers. But it is still worth pursuing this relationship as, given a smart strategy and enough time, recent graduates can eventually turn into a significant source of funds.

A blonde girl gives a graduation speech

The key messages 

1. Start before they graduate

For many graduates, it’s graduation itself that is the first time they encounter the concept of ‘alumni’. Prior to that, they may not give the concept much thought; they may not even be aware of it. If that is the case, the messaging surrounding alumni needs to be brought forward and made a part of their university experience.

Many university students are unaware of the importance of fundraising. They don’t hear, for example, that certain projects or research are only made possible thanks to a community of generous funders. This could certainly be made clearer to allow the proverbial penny to drop. Make it a mission to educate the students on the importance of establishing and cultivating a culture of philanthropy. For example, this could include encouraging students to volunteer at fundraising events or attend workshops with alumni.

The University of Brighton encouraged this by creating a ‘thank you’ day in recognition of philanthropists around the world who have donated funds that benefited the student’s education. There was a Twitter campaign, a wall of gratitude, video interviews with beneficiaries, and even a phone campaign where students called donors to personally thank them.

A neon sign saying 'Thank you!'

2. Segment alumni

Once the students have graduated, it’s time to kickstart your alumni conversation. In order to illicit support, the right conversation needs to be had with the right person. Sending a generic message is unlikely to result in a great reception. Instead, segment your alumni and create personas to create bespoke messages that resonate.

For example, the majority of the class of 2019 won’t care about the legacy of the Hockey Team, but a minority will care passionately. Target the right audience with the right message and you can create nostalgia and encourage more engagement. Other possibly segments may include which course they took, club or society membership, where they live now and which industry they work in. [Learn more about segmentation here.]

3. Support and nurture

The relationship between graduates and their institute has to be mutually beneficial for it to work. Even when alumni donate, they are getting something out of the exchange such as a sense of pride. However, before contacting new alumni about funding, it’s worth establishing a foundation of ongoing support. This helps to reinforce the connection and highlights to the graduate your commitment to their continued development. This could be showcased through career development opportunities, creating an alumni network, arranging reunions and helping alumni secure internships and employment.

Scrabble tiles spelling out the word 'SUPPORT'

4. Outline the benefits

As well as supporting recent graduates, spend time outlining the benefits of being alumni at your institute. Again, interest in benefits will vary between graduates so it pays to target your messaging. Some of the benefits could including a sense of belonging, which could be reinforced through customised clothing and a community newsletter. Another benefit might be greater access, which could include tickets to university events or discounts. 

5. Solicit non-financial engagement

Another way to encourage engagement and foster the relationship with your new alumni is to request non-financial engagement. This is beneficial to the university and – where cash-strapped graduates are concerned – often a more viable option than setting up a monthly donation. This helps promote a two-way conversation, instead of risking talking ‘at’ graduates. It shows the university is interested in what they have to offer and is keen to keep connecting with them beyond graduation.

This could include asking them to mentor or provide a work placement for a current student, serving on a committee, attending a panel or event or even something as simple as asking them to fill out a survey.

A woman uses a computer

6. Set the tone

When it is time to fund out a fundraising email to alumni, tone is crucial. For example, the use of ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ makes the graduate feel an automatic sense of belonging. So instead of saying “We need your support to continue offering scholarships” you might consider “You allowed us to offer £500k in scholarships”.

On a similar note, expressing gratitude should not just be reserved for when the alumni donate, but should run throughout communications. Paying careful attention to the tone positions the alumni as part of an essential part of the university that works alongside staff, students and researchers to help make real changes in the world.

7. Always evolve

We live in constantly changing times and it pays to adapt with your alumni. Every university is different and has a different culture, so there is no one size fits all approach to alumni relations. It’s only through experimenting that you’ll discover what resonates with your alumni. Ensure that your tests and experiments are tracked and can be analysed so that you can build upon your knowledge base and keep improving.

In conclusion…

Engaging with new alumni is a worthwhile pursuit that can result in a mutually beneficial relationship. While young alumni may not be able to donate, by engaging with them and supporting them through the early stages of their career you will cultivate a relationship and lay the groundwork for future fundraising.