Annual fund leaders across the country are hitting the homestretch and ramping up efforts as the June 30th fiscal year end approaches. For many of these leaders, the picture has been grim over the last decade as alumni giving rates have fallen into the single digits.
Alumni have never been easier to reach. But they’ve never been less likely to convert as donors.
Volunteers to the Rescue?
Top annual fund programs help close the gap by relying on volunteers to complement institutional solicitations with peer-to-peer outreach. Williams, Princeton, Holy Cross, Bowdoin, and other leading annual fund programs turn to volunteers to hit 50%+ participation numbers year in and year out.
As I’ve been doubling down on my own volunteer efforts at Brown and Harvard this spring, I’ve been reflecting on the reasons why I love supporting the annual fund with time and money at my college and business school.
These are the top five reasons I love being an annual fund volunteer.
1. I love working with fellow volunteers.
I’m just over 10 years out of college and five years out of business school. Most of my peers are in their early to mid-30s. It’s a busy time in our lives, and our ability to make excuses for not staying in better touch has never been greater: We have young children, active careers, hectic travel schedules, you name it.
By volunteering for the annual fund, I get a chance to collaborate with peers whom I’d otherwise be less likely to speak with. Staying in touch is so much easier when we are on a team that has mutual goals and shared deadlines.
2. I love making “the ask.”
In the last two weeks, I’ve made personal outreach to around 40 business school classmates as part of our fifth reunion fundraising campaign. Some of my asks are targeted at my closest friends. But many of my asks are to people I haven’t seen in person since graduation. Before asking for a gift, I make a point to see what each person has been up to professionally and what’s new personally. It might seem odd to “research” old friends, but it’s a fun excuse to check in. I learn baby names via Facebook, better remember where people live and work via LinkedIn, and develop a better sense for what’s going on in my classmates’ lives.
And although making the ask—again and again and again—can be tedious and sometimes feel intrusive, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how many people genuinely appreciate the reminders.
For example, last week I made my third ask to people who haven’t responded to my first two attempts. I was starting to think a few people didn’t like me anymore, didn’t want to give, or a combination of both. But three of the responses I received reaffirmed my appreciation for continuing to repeat the ask.
“done. excited to see the Grinna gang in May.”
“Hey Brent! I’ll definitely make a gift, just haven’t had time to do it. I appreciate your follow up!”
“Sure, Brent! Thanks for the reminder! Can you pls also send me the donation link? It is just so hard to have access to overseas websites from China.”
It’s important to repeat the ask until I receive a firm “yes” or “no”. The “silent no” is the annual fund’s biggest enemy! It’s easy to discard mail, it’s easy to ignore mass emails, it’s easy to ignore a phone call, but it’s difficult to ignore a persistent friend.
3) I love feeling the pain of the annual fund.
Every entrepreneur needs to empathize with his or her customers and users. As we continue to invest in our vision for social donor management at EverTrue, my annual fund volunteer efforts offer me a unique opportunity to feel the everyday challenges of our customers by walking in the shoes of advancement professionals.
Achieving annual fund success is extremely challenging with lots of moving parts. Annual fund staff members are stretched thin managing volunteers in addition to executing other multi-channel marketing campaigns.
As volunteers, we miss conference calls, we procrastinate, we’re demanding, and we love offering process and technology feedback to development team members who usually have little control over those decisions or choices.
Technology isn’t doing us any favors. Most volunteers are equipped with spreadsheets or 1990s-inspired web portals that provide stagnant information that is moderately accurate at best.
But while that’s challenging for volunteers, many advancement professionals have spent the bulk of their careers dealing with inaccurate data in clunky systems with minimal insights and complex workflows. It’s helpful for me to feel the pain our customers feel. Because every pain point represents an opportunity.
4. I love sharing in the success.
It’s fun to win the games you’re supposed to win—but winning in the face of adversity is even sweeter. (That’s why everyone loves supporting the underdog during March Madness.) I’m hopeful the annual fund can emerge as the “Cinderella Story” of higher education advancement.
There is no shortage of headlines relating to decreasing alumni giving.
“College Donations Slowed in 2012 as Alumni Giving Dropped” – Bloomberg
“College Debt Impacts Alumni Giving” – Eduventures
“Startling Drop in Alumni Giving” – Johnson Grossnickle Associates
Those are the headlines that I’ve read since graduating from business school five years ago. Now compare those headlines with our section giving results over that same time period.
HBS Section C 2010 Participation by Year
These headlines simply don’t tell the whole story. The sky isn’t falling. Alumni giving participation can be improved, and we’re seeing success stories emerge at institutions large and small.
- The College of Idaho has grown alumni giving from 9% to 36% since the mid 2000s.
- Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business raised a record $6.35 million in the last fiscal year with more alumni than ever participating—a world-leading 70.9%.
- Boston University has doubled its annual fund donor base in the last 10 years.
- And for the first time ever, over 15,000 William & Mary alumni gave in 2014, representing a 5.3% increase over 2013’s record of 14,368 undergraduate alumni donors.
The writing isn’t on the wall. These examples help prove that the broad decline in alumni giving can be reversed with strong execution.
5. I believe in the mission.
I couldn’t have attended college without the support of donors whom I will never meet. They paid it forward, and I benefit from their support every day of my life. From my senior class gift campaign to my “11th reunion” effort, supporting the annual fund with time and volunteerism has been very rewarding to me.
The Volunteer Advantage
I suspect giving rates are trending downward for the same reason other businesses reliant on legacy marketing channels have struggled. Donors are moving to new channels to conduct transactions of all kinds. Most schools have underinvested in these new channels while maintaining investment in legacy channels.
But volunteers heavily leverage newer channels like Facebook and LinkedIn, which enable us to be more effective than ever. We compensate for our institutions’ underinvestment in technology by overinvesting in our use of social and mobile to complete the tasks at hand.
Volunteers aren’t successful because of the technology we are provided, but rather in spite of it. Building on this momentum and piggy-backing on the social connections among our donors is one of the clearest opportunities in the advancement world.
Read more of Brent’s thoughts about the future of advancement in his post, “The Advancement Office of 2015.”