Identify Your Alumni Marketing Bad Habits

Breaking Bad Habits in Higher Ed Fundraising Without Needing Your Chemistry Teacher

It’s Monday morning. Your entire department has gathered in the Institutional Advancement office. You aren’t a big higher ed fundraising team, but the excitement in the room is palpable. There’s a fun banner hanging over the window. Someone brought a carrot cake with your mascot on it (in school-themed colors, of course).

For a workday, this is as off-the-hook as it gets.

The occasion? It’s August, and that means a new semester. Not only do you get the excitement and promise of a brand-spankin’ new school year, but it’s the kickoff to the biggest higher ed fundraising season. (What, you thought homecoming was all about the coed hairstyles? Think again.)

Despite all the good feeling in the air, something doesn’t feel … quite right.

You can’t put your finger on it, you know it’s there. Even the cake can’t distract you from it, and it was really good cake. What’s going on?

The Bad Habits You Don’t Even Know You Have

If you’re like most small schools, you’re seeing dropping participation in fundraising efforts, limited budgets, decreasing headcounts in departments and alumni organizations, and increasing trouble making headway in your advancement efforts.

While most alumni associations and advancement departments have spent the last 10 years scratching their heads at the seeming mystery of these trends, there’s no real mystery. A short list of bad habits contributes directly to these problems (and to that blah feeling that gets in the way of good cake).

Now, don’t worry: Your department is not alone. While a small subset of very well-funded schools – perhaps the top 50 or so – have the budget and the staff to succeed no matter what, your school likely does not. Despite your best efforts, it’s tough out there, and wishin’ and hopin’ for more engagement and a better budget just isn’t going to cut it. For you, a plan is needed. A plan to break those habits. Like, yesterday.

Luckily, we’re here with a list of the six worst habits, and how to begin loosening the chains that bind you to them.

Bad Habit No. 1: Boring Email Newsletters

How many times have you sent a snooze-inducing newsletter that began with “Hello Stan! We’re happy to announce the development of a new initiative here on campus, and we would love your financial assistance with … ”

Honestly, even people who work in the advancement office usually click away pretty fast. Why? Not because you don’t care about the cause. Perhaps you do … it’s difficult to wade through all of that booooring text. Most people figure, If it’s really important, I’ll hear about it eventually.

Unfortunately for you, that’s often not true. This might be your shot to let your readers know about something really important … and instead, you’re greeting them like a robot and blowing the whole thing.

Did you know that 73% of Millennials will share content if it makes them laugh? Really that’s a pretty low bar … all you have to do is break away from the dry content of yesteryear and inject a little personality, and already you’ve got a leg up when contacting alums. You should personalize the greeting more than just “Hi, {Name}.” For Pete’s sake, try a “Greetings” or a “Shalom” or even a “Howdy-doo!”

As for the campaigns themselves, it’s time for a little forethought. Announcing the latest and greatest college development might feel tempting, it’s bad policy. Instead, you need to build out a full campaign that maps out what you want from alums, then nurtures their interest slowly and steadily. Otherwise, you’ll just do what you’ve always done, which is pop out of nowhere every three months and demand money.

And I hope this shoe doesn’t fit. You might be among the offenders who email every week and lose subscribers permanently: 44 percent of millennials will disengage forever if they get spammed too often.

No Bueno.

Bad Habit No. 2: Sticking with the Status Quo

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? goes the saying. Unfortunately, some of you take this too much to heart, sticking with the same tired email newsletters, student phone-a-thons and semi-regular “Isn’t Our School Amazing?!” advancement-themed soirees. While these can be useful, they’re certainly not the only approaches available.

Today there exist all sorts of neat-o applications and platforms to help you expand your reach in a way that actually reaches alumni, sponsors, and other important contacts. Think Facebook retargeting, which puts you in touch with people who have expressed interest, or behavior-driven emails, which ensures you only solicit people who’ve already bitten. That way, you can keep pursuing those warm leads and stop annoying the heck out of the rest. And if something doesn’t work, who cares? A much better saying to adopt is: If you’re not failing, you’re not trying!

Bad Habit No. 3: Assuming Loyalty Is Enough

The old days are gone, and that’s a fact. Not only do kids these days do the darnedest things, they just don’t give the way their parents and grandparents did.

Check this explanation from Eduventures: “Young alumni are far less likely to give out of a sense of loyalty than their parents or grandparents. Only 27% of Millennials cite ‘obligation’ as a top motivator for giving, compared to 50% of Baby Boomers. Instead, Millennials are more likely to be motivated by the impact that they believe their gifts will make.”

Moreover, “in order to attract the next generation of donors —it’s not just how this generation gives, rather why they give.” If you want to inflate the budget, increase donations and see success in your department, it’s important to understand what makes your alums tick. So ask them. Don’t assume that your brilliant institution is enough to attract their attention because they gave you all their money while they attended. Drill down, and you’ll find you get much more engagement.

Bad Habit No. 4: Failing to Recognize Millennial Needs

Quit going after those golden oldies. Millennials are now the largest population group, surpassing the Baby Boomers in 2016 by a narrow margin of 77 to 76 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More to the point, Millennials’ earning potential is currently skyrocketing, Boomers are on a fixed income. Who should you be targeting? Millennials. Who are your current strategies appropriate for? Boomers.

Uh oh.

If your current strategies aren’t bringing in the results you want, this is likely a huge part of the problem. Millennials aren’t stupid; they can tell your salami-and-cheese affairs are geared toward the elderly set. They’re disinterested at best; alienated at worst. It’s time to stop cold calling and cold cutting (get it?) and start actively engaging millennials in events they care about, for causes they care about.

Think about this: According to NewsCred, 64 percent of Millennials will engage with thought-provoking or intelligent content. 30 percent will flat refuse to read what doesn’t entertain or educate them.

Oh, and speaking of cold calling? Just stop it. Says Judy Tian: “Students, you should no longer be cold calling because it’s an outdated and ineffective strategy. You are a part of a generation who grew up in the age of social media and technology. Quite frankly, you should know better.”

Bad Habit No. 5: Emailing Alumni Who Aren’t Alumni

Alumni give to schools. It’s a thing. It’s been going on for a while. You know who doesn’t give? Current students, because they’re already paying out the wazoo. Kids that just graduated, who are both eating and sleeping on pallets of ramen. People who never went to your school in the first place. We’re seeing comments like these all over social media:

“And on that topic can Rut Alumni stop asking me for money. Literally graduated 10 days ago.” ~ Strapped new graduate

“Question… do you have to be an OU alum to join the alumni association? Yes? THEN STOP ASKING ME FOR MONEY AND LEAVE ME ALONE.” ~ University of Nebraska alum, being solicited by The University of Oklahoma

“@TempleUniv stop calling me asking for money. Y’all rich af harassing alumni for $50 donations GTFOH.” ~ Disenchanted alum unmoved by the heavy-handed approach

Bad Habit No. 6: Using Bad Metrics

Vanity metrics have taken many a promising advancement department down. Thumbs-up signs and open rates all seem very exciting … until you realize that none of them guarantees engagement. If you want to play it safe, stop relying on:

  • Social impressions
  • Likes or favorites
  • Total emails
  • Email opens
  • Click-through rates

On the other hand, it’s possible to focus over-much on negative metrics too. Assuming that unsubscribes spell the doom of your college is a little overdramatic. (Which is only fine if you’re Juilliard. And you are not.) It might not mean what you think it means at all.

As Alumni Access explains, “An unsubscribe doesn’t necessarily mean they are rejecting you, your organization or your institution. Sometimes people are receiving multiple emails from you, and they are unsubscribing to simplify their inbox. Conversely, many people may be unengaged, but won’t unsubscribe for any number of reasons. Instead, they’ll simply stop opening, clicking or reading your emails, and you won’t have the benefit of an unsubscribe notification.”

The takeaway? Metrics are only useful if you’re putting them, well, to use. Check your Instagram likes if you actually get donations from Instagram. Agonize about who’s unsubscribing to your email newsletter if it actually correlates with a dip in readers and donations. Otherwise, who cares? Everyone sees positive and negative results from their efforts; don’t make the mistake of inspecting the trees and failing to see the forest.

Breaking unwanted habits in higher ed fundraising doesn’t happen overnight. Focus on it now so your next start-of-year gathering will knock everyone’s socks off.


Goodbye, bad habits. Hello, cake.