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5 Trends Driving University Fundraising

Fundraising is a key way to diversify revenue in higher education. Learn how institutions can boost alumni giving with these tips and trends. 

Amid declining state funding and falling enrollment, building a motivated donor base is critical to the financial health of higher education institutions. Alumni giving is an indispensable source of revenue for institutions. Like many aspects of the higher education landscape, alumni relations and fundraising trends are changing. Still recovering from the hectic peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many higher education leaders are left wondering what’s on donors’ minds.  

So, how did the pandemic affect the state of alumni giving? As it turns out, alumni across the nation stepped up, with charitable giving increasing 12.5% in 2022. 

Now, with higher education enrollment revenue on the decline and grant funding increasingly competitive, alumni financial gifts are more meaningful than ever. But to actually garner them, higher education fundraising leaders must have a deeper understanding of their alumni, including what drives them to give and how to reach them. To overcome fundraising challenges, colleges and universities must build a motivated, consistent donor base. To achieve this, advancement officers must be aware of current trends and best practices in alumni giving, considering factors such as advancement staffing, channels of alumni communication, types of alumni engagement, alumni age groups, and even advertising. 

Attaining alumni financial support is no easy task: After all, 69% of alumni choose not to give, with many saying they don’t believe their gift makes an impact. But 31% of the alumni who do give, they often give repeatedly. By better understanding former students who are donors and non-donors alike, higher education leaders can more successfully cultivate long-term alumni relationships, identify individuals primed to give, and grow their donation numbers. 

1. Multi-Channel Approaches Modernize the Alumni Giving Process

Institutions find that a multi-channel, digital approach is most effective, in higher education fundraising. A 2021 study by Blackbaud cites significant popularity in donor migration between digital channels. In other words, people are now plugged into more online spaces than years before. Moreover, phone call and direct mail giving trends are on the decline as online giving accounts for 44.8% of higher education donations. For these reasons, offer current and future donor bases multiple channels to stay connected.

Channels and Insights to Consider 

  • Email: Unlike direct mail, email fundraising remains an effective digital channel for donors. In fact, nearly 60% of alumni respondents in Hanover’s 2022 alumni giving survey cite email as their preferred method if communication.  
  • Social media: Facebook and Instagram remain the most commonly used social media channels for donor outreach. Social media presence promotes fundraising success by helping institutions, create/sustain brand image, reach more alumni demographics, and increase awareness of engagement initiatives. You may be familiar with the rule of seven — the number of times it takes someone to respond to a promotional call to action. Social media messaging is a great way to boost exposure and help your audiences encounter frequent messaging that speaks to their needs and encourages them to act. 
  • Crowdfunding: Our 2022 alumni giving survey found that the alumni donors give in small amounts but are more likely to give repeatedly. Small gifts add up to big returns! Crowdfunding appeals to this donor profile — particularly young alumni and new donors — who are more likely to give smaller amounts. Many crowdfunding platforms also encourage donations by showcasing progress and the number of peers who also donated. Additionally, as much as 8 percent of current students give to crowdfunding initiatives, as cited in a Cornell University report, meaning crowdfunding offers agency to current students.  
Learn more about creating compelling giving messaging that aligns with your institution’s brand with our webinar, Building a Cohesive Brand Identity Across the University. 

2. A Well-Staffed Development Team Remains Key to University Fundraising

At large institutions with high returns on investments, development staff account for half of full-time employees in advancement offices. Development staff are responsible for keeping partnerships strong to meet both their own institution’s fundraising goals, but also advance an institution’s philanthropic mission. Within the development department, advancement and digital marketing staff play an essential role in yielding higher returns by expanding reach and making new connections with donors and alumni. Furthermore, nearly 60% of educational institutions report having one or more development staff members manage their social media platforms. Digital development within the higher education advancement landscape is clearly on the rise, so what skillsets do these team members bring to the table?  

Jessy Lawrence, Senior Director of Advancement Communications at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, emphasizes the value of development staff roles: “The importance of fundraising employees lies in fostering communications and connections of institutional alumni to provide meaningful experiences and opportunities (both philanthropic and non-philanthropic), not only for themselves, but to help improve the lives of current and prospective students as well as faculty. Connecting meaningfully with alumni can inspire them to assist others with life-changing resources, scholarships, and experiences that will impact their lives, not just while at the University of Tennessee, but throughout their journey after graduation.” 

As more avenues for donor connections make their way into public life, institutions must continue to allocate resources for a well-staffed digital development team.  

Philanthropic giving is not the only way to boost revenue. Learn more about how to support faculty in the pursuit of strategic grantseeking. 

3. Financial Pressures Limit Younger Alumni Giving

As much as 52% of non-donating alumni cite affordability as the main reason for not giving to their former institutions. Particularly, individuals who take home less than $150,000 per year are less likely to donate than their peers with higher earnings. With the average new graduate only making about $60,000 per year, in some regions, it’s understandable why younger alumni remain of the least likely demographic to give. Unfortunately, as student loan repayments resume, this negative trend may continue.  

How should institutions balance the financial burdens of newer graduates while maintaining their alumni fundraising goals? We recommend keeping the following insights in mind when engaging with a younger donor base:  

  • Retaining current alumni donors remains a valuable practice for development teams as financial strains on alumni discourage new donorship. Donor retention strategies include personalized messaging, storytelling to emphasize the power of their donation, and even investing in perks for repeat donors.  
  • Prioritize messaging that values smaller giving amounts. Train staff to create content that is appreciative of all donations no matter how small, and illustrates the tangible results of smaller gifts 

4. Alumni Engagement Programs Keep Institutions Relevant 

While higher education fundraising teams may be aware of the personal financial strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, they might not draw a connection to the social-emotional ramifications of the pandemic. So, how does the wide-spread issue of adult loneliness affect alumni relations? Development teams may help provide solutions to this problem that boost brand awareness (and yearly giving) while providing an outlet for graduates who have lost touch with their alma mater pride.  

Facilitating meaningful connections through donor and alumni engagement programs encourages alumni to see the value in donating. Hosting events such as picnics, tailgates, field days, and peer-to-peer social networks for alumni can strengthen the shared value of giving back. Above all, our report finds that today’s donors want to give back. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of donor respondents say they are very or extremely likely to give to their undergraduate institution in the future. Offering social events for potential alumni donors is a valuable way to keep them connected, which can nurture their desire to contribute to higher education fundraising. 

Learn more about monitoring your alumni’s loyalty with our blog, NPS: The Most Important Metric Your Higher Education Competitors Aren’t Using.

5. Showcasing Alumni Achievements to Boost Donor Confidence

With growing skepticism of college as a worthy investment, it remains incredibly important for institutions to proudly showcase the accomplishments made possible only through their programs. Sometimes it isn’t enough to simply highlight the potential of your students, but also document the actualized, measurable outcomes. This may attract the attention of new donors who feel passionate about a certain career field, such as healthcare or law. Highlighting alumni achievements also helps retain the 61% of donors surveyed by Hanover, who are very likely or extremely like to donate multiple times.  

Don’t underestimate the power of quality alumni storytelling. Consider the following tips when creating an alumni achievement campaign:  

  • Regularly offer a variety of means for alumni to connect and tell their stories, such as polls, surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews. Keep these processes accessible and concise, to allow even busy professionals to participate. Consider using a third-party research partner to develop these tools for you if your team is short on time or data collection expertise. 
  • Utilize a variety of digital media tactics and platforms to expand reach, including incorporating engaging alumni spotlights using video, sound, pictures, and links within newsletters, or email campaigns, and on social media.  
  • Highlight accomplishments and stories that connect with alumni’s emotions and shared values, and consistently promote them to increase chances of retaining donors.  

Learn more about what’s on alumni donors’ minds with The 2022 State of Alumni Giving Report.  




Boost your higher education fundraising strategy with these tips to encourage alumni giving.

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