How Misconceptions About Millennials Are Hurting Your College Fundraising … and What to Do About It
You’ve been to college. Maybe it was only for a semester or two, but no matter your tenure, the results are the same:
Wait approximately 2.5 months after graduating (or not graduating). Receive letter in the mail summarizing how lucky you are to have received Glorious Education from Spendy University, explaining Current Amazing Cause and cordially requesting that you consider donating A Small Something to said cause. Anything helps!
Ignore letter. Because, student loans. Also rent and the occasional pizza + growler. You’re only human.
Wait another 3 months or so. Receive chirpy phone call from student volunteer asking you if you have any plans to donate to the alumni association, and if so, when? If not, why? And can we spend a few (dozen) minutes convincing you otherwise?
Hang up phone call. Receive new phone call every few months, subtly transitioning from “Will you donate?” to “We want to make sure we have your contact information right so we can badger you forever and ever and EVER! Yay! And also … will you donate?”
Continue indefinitely. Repeat in next life.
The State of the [Alumni Association] Union
In a word, alumni associations ain’t doing great. Okay, that was three words, but point is: Fundraising efforts leave a whole lot to be desired.
The above vignette is exactly how most students feel upon graduating from college, and if you’re like most alumni associations, you’re contributing to that problem. If this approach worked, it might be worth something. But it doesn’t.
According to statistics gathered by Alumni Access, an impressive 87 percent of alumni professionals report a need to improve member engagement, 85 percent admit to doing a poor job with it, and 70 percent say it’s their top goal. But only 27 percent have a dedicated plan in place.
According to other sources (the ones in my head that are just as good as actual research), the remaining 73 percent have a spazzy, ill-realized plan that’s no better than something a 4-year-old could devise. At least 4-year-olds are cute, unlike the stodgy, middle-aged director of your association.
And lest you think alumni are just “busy,” think again. A full 90 percent of alumni will not give after receiving their fifth reminder. Yet chances are good most graduates – and non-graduates and even current students – have been asked more than five times without any encouragement to justify those repeated efforts. In fact, 22 percent of institutions send four or more reminders within the first year.
You guys. Has no one told you that new grads are poor? Even those who have been working for several years are just barely achieving a measure of stability in their careers. Not to mention their bank accounts. Alumni associations are, for lack of a better term, crapping where they eat. Biting the hand that feeds them. Shooting themselves in the foot. [Insert metaphor of choice.]
So what is it about the conversation between millennials and alumni that just isn’t working? Well first, it’s important to understand just who millennials are, and how they give.
Millennials: The Worst? Or Only Kind of the Worst?
The common belief is that millennials are selfish, ungenerous and super-de-duper full of themselves. According to TIME, they are narcissistic on a grand scale. Oh, and also, they are entitled, “self-absorbed little monsters.”
Hold off on the conclusion that TIME Magazine just really, really hates 18- to 29-year-olds. Instead, they claim a) that it’s the parents’ fault – isn’t it always? – and b) that millennials may save us all.
Why? Because they challenge convention everywhere they look. Because they are more accepting of differences in race and sexual orientation than past generations. Because they are idealists that would rather do than dream, even if they fail. Because they love their causes. Sure, they take too many selfies and spend waaaaay too much time Instagramming their fresh manicures and sushi burritos, but they’re also just plain nice. They freakin’ care, man.
Millennials may well be the answer to your fundraising efforts … if you can manage not to tick them off, that is.
Millennials: The Charitable Generation
Here’s the thing: Millennials are selfish, but they are far from miserly. In fact, they’re generous. According to the Huffington Post, 84 percent gave charitably in 2014, at an average of $481 per year. When you weigh that against an average student loan debt of $37,000 for 2016 graduates (*pukes down sleeve*), that’s pretty dang giving. Even Mark Zuckerberg, despite his reputation for being a classic a-hole, is eminently charitable, donating 99 percent of his Facebook shares in 2015.
But their charitable giving is distinguished by one overriding characteristic: They need to care about the cause personally. In generations past, people gave to clubs or organizations that promised to dispose of the money well. Rotary International and Lions Club guarantee and deliver community action, but it is of a nonspecific nature.
Millennials don’t play dat. “Young donors place deep value on experiencing philanthropy as opposed to just giving to a charity,” opines the Huffington Post writer, adding that “millennial philanthropists demand more transparency when giving than our more seasoned counterparts.”
The takeaway here? Millennials are totally into giving. Why, then, are alumni associations falling on their faces in trying to drum up funds? I mean, those alums liked their educations, right? And presumably care about their alma maters?
Answers: yes and yes. But what you might be missing is how they want to be talked to, and why they might consider giving. Most likely, you’ve got it wrong on both counts.
“Dear Alumni Association: Stop Taking Us for Granted”
In the same Huffington Post article, Cristina Mas, Marketing Director for Colliers International, gives a first-person perspective on millennial disenchantment with alumni associations “We want to feel like our donation — no matter how big or small — matters. So many fundraising officers don’t bother to engage us because we can’t name a wing at our alma mater…yet. But we are your future board members, your future giving circles and all we want is to know that our engagement and participation isn’t taken for granted.”
Search Twitter chats or the comments section of any post about alumni giving and you will find pissed off former students:
So yeah. Just asking doesn’t work. What does?
Getting Millennials on Board Requires a Better Message
While 65 percent of Americans call millennials entitled, 58 of millennials themselves agree. Yeah, they seem to be saying, we want it our way. But that doesn’t mean we’re bad guys.
At least some of that entitlement goes toward choosing how they want to spend their money, and needing to be very, very sure their cause is worth it before donating. Your university? Meh. They already gave you $100,000 … why should they give more? Isn’t that enough for your football team to continue performing adequately?
Before you bristle, consider the message you’re sending. It’s possible you’re really not transmitting anything more important than “Hey! We like money! LOVE it, even! Can we have more?” Because that’s just plain unlikely to work.
Don’t lose heart, though. While the tactics that do work are beyond the scope of this post, they definitely exist, and we’ll be sharing more of them in coming weeks and months, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you have any tips or frustrations you’d like to share in the comments, please do.