Why Alumni Relations Should Embrace Fundraising, Not Run From It

My name is Keith and I am an alumni relations professional. (“Hi, Keith.”)

If you ask Workday, my university title is “Alumni Engagement Officer II.” Now, I’m not typically one to disagree with HR, but I would also consider myself a fundraiser. (“WHAT did he just say?”)

That’s right, I’m a fundraiser. I’m an alumni engagement officer AND a fundraiser, and I’m willing to bet… so are you.

Preliminary data from the Voluntary Alumni Engagement in Support of Education (VAESE) survey shows that alumni relations and development departments are becoming increasingly assimilated, with 56% of alumni organizations reporting being fully integrated with fundraising operations. This spurred an article that posed a very sensitive question: is alumni relations now subordinate to fundraising? Gary Toyn, the author of the article, makes several good points about the negative effects of this trend, arguing that “fundraising objectives shouldn’t replace alumni engagement objectives.”

But might I suggest that fundraising has always been the prominent mission of advancement and alumni relations? And might I also suggest that alumni relations has the potential to scale in a way that makes us indispensable to development? In short, I think Toyn presents a “glass half-empty” perspective for what happens when fundraising and alumni relations merge.

“Anything is possible”

The internal battle between fundraiser and friend-raiser has a long history. (Well, at least that’s what I sense after a whole five years in the business.) While my time in higher education is brief compared to some, history tells us that not only has fundraising always had a place in alumni relations, but it was initiated by alumni volunteers.

Imagine a time when alumni approached the university and said, “You know, you should really consider asking us for money.” Well, that’s what happened in 1890 when a group of Yale alumni gathered in a Manhattan apartment to discuss a way “to open an opportunity for contributions from Alumni to the funds of the University.”

This meeting is documented in “Anything is possible” by A.J. Allen, Jr. and provides us with an up-close look at how alumni volunteers, not institutional staff, took the historic step of creating the first university annual fund. Their plan, which Yale adopted, was quite straightforward in asking “that the corporation be requested to open a fund to be entitled ‘Alumni University Fund’ and to be applicable to any uses of the University, and to announce its readiness to receive contributions to said fund at any time and in any amounts.”

From there, they would begin solicitations, including the humorous cartoon below. Let me emphasize the fact that they were using humor to pitch the annual fund in the 1890s. Let your hair down, folks.


Twenty-three years later, the Association of Alumni Secretaries (which would eventually become CASE) first met in 1913. Many consider this the “birth of alumni relations,” and while the majority of them were class volunteers, development work was very much on their list of priorities. An example of this comes from the University of Nebraska, which in the early 1910s tasked alumni secretaries with raising money for a new football stadium.

We can debate how involved alumni relations professionals should be in solicitations, but we cannot pretend that there’s a historical precedence dividing alumni relations from fundraising. Clearly, alumni relations was born out of the need for financial support, and this is no time to abandon that responsibility.

We have to expand on our definition of engagement. Engagement doesn’t end with an event attendance or a Facebook like; that’s where it begins. The founding members of alumni relations knew then what we know now: engagement and affinity lead to financial support (see this study with research from EverTrue, MIT, and Ohio State). Let’s not kid ourselves or insult our alumni by pretending we don’t host events in the hopes that they will inspire gifts. We know it, our alumni know it, and that’s okay—because it’s our job.

If you believe in the mission of your university, you should sleep well at night. Distancing yourself from fundraising is a self-defeating exercise and only makes you vulnerable to a hostile takeover.

“When to sound the alarm”

In his article, Toyn lays out a list of situations in which alumni relations professionals should “sound the alarm and stick up for your profession” in the case of integration with development. They are as follows:

  • When alumni who haven’t yet given are treated or feel as though they are second-class citizens.
  • When fundraising objectives replace alumni engagement objectives.
  • When alumni perceive that giving money is the only acceptable means of supporting their alma mater.
  • When performance evaluations of executive administrators are measured heavily by fundraising metrics.
  • When alumni gift solicitations become the institution’s de facto alumni engagement program.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with these points. We certainly have to develop mutually beneficial relationships with alumni if we’re to garner engagement and/or donations.

However, I disagree with the idea that you can’t develop those types of relationships if you merge alumni relations and development. I would even argue that assimilation provides a better experience for alumni, which I’ll elaborate on below.

“When alumni who haven’t given are treated or feel as though they are second-class citizens”

It’s important that alumni don’t feel second class, but they also need to know why giving is important and how they can make a gift that satisfies both them and the needs of the university. Remember the history. Alumni came together because they recognized the institution’s need for donations. I think the problem occurs when alumni relations and development don’t work together towards a common end goal.

In fact, alumni relations is in a great position to humanize the ask through our understanding of the general alumni body. I think this can only be achieved if alumni relations and development are working in close proximity.

At Cornell, we (alumni affairs) work very closely with the annual fund, which sits under the alumni affairs umbrella. Together, we’re able to craft messaging that illustrates impact and highlights the non-giving participation that helps make Cornell great. This is where our crowdfunding comes in, as it been very successful in improving young alumni giving and engaging non-donors.

You never want to make alumni feel second class, but I think we also have to do a better job of changing how they perceive their degree. It’s not a receipt, but a membership card—and with membership comes certain expectations. We need to focus on showing alumni how to make a difference within their budget. Universities excel at publicizing major and principal gifts that transform the institution, and while that’s important to recognize, we don’t want to create the perception that those are the only gifts that matter.

When fundraising objectives replace alumni engagement objectives”

We all know how clear development is in their mission. Gift officers and annual giving staff are held accountable to specific numbers that measure their success.


The goals of alumni relations teams, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. We might shoot for more event attendees, more volunteers, and even more web and social media traffic. But if aggregate engagement is all we’re reporting, we’re allowing ourselves to become subordinates. Engagement objectives are important, but they’re not the end of the road.

Understanding that engagement is the precursor to philanthropy is why many schools are investing more in student and young alumni programs. The University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and Texas Christian University are just a few institutions known for successfully engaging students from day one. Through this engagement, students develop an appreciation for their school, the people who have shaped its history, and the pivotal role that philanthropy plays in advancing the institution.

These programs would not fulfill their potential if fundraising wasn’t built into the messaging. These schools have proven that they can develop relationships and offer value to students and alumni, while simultaneously increasing young alumni giving rates.

“When alumni perceive that giving money is the only acceptable means of supporting their alma mater”

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is already the mindset of most alumni. We’re really good at asking for money through direct mail and email, but we’re not as good at delivering meaningful content. I don’t think that this is a situation that will be created by assimilation because it already exists.

However, merging alumni relations and development just might be the solution.

The era of social media allows us to scale alumni engagement in a way no one could have imagined 10 to 15 years ago, yet advancement still hasn’t invested heavily in digital tactics. We allocate so much of our budget towards events, but for a much smaller sum, digital engagement offers daily interactions that can inspire engagement strategies for segments of alumni or specific, tracked alumni.

If you’re regularly engaging the masses via social media, you can inform alumni about the many different ways they can be of service to their alma mater. One such way could include using social influencers (who may have low capacity) to be spokespeople for their alma mater or act as a bridge to alumni with high capacity that fall within their networks. The point is, if alumni relations is not actively engaging alumni digitally, with fundraising in mind, potential value for both the alum and institution swirls down the drain.

Alumni probably already perceive that giving is the only means of support, but through an alumni relations/development merger, we’re better positioned to show other opportunities that still end with philanthropy.

When performance evaluations of executive administrators are measured heavily by fundraising metrics”

If the emphasis on fundraising is pushing “traditional alumni relations” aside, it’s probably because schools are becoming increasingly paranoid about how much money they have in the bank. Participation rates are dropping, and state funding—while rising slightly—is still below pre-recession levels.


As state funding per student goes down and tuition goes up, we’re seeing enrollment numbers decline, especially amongst low-income students.


The constant pressure to have the best facilities and faculty, plus adequate financial aid packages, to attract the best students (or any) is real.

We can’t run from this reality, but we (alumni relations and development) can unite and embrace it.

If alumni relations isn’t bringing more donors to the table, the focus then turns to the very few donors with very large pocket books—and that’s exactly what we’re seeing as most schools are reporting that about 95% of the total dollars raised comes from just 5% of their alumni. This is an unsustainable strategy that will continue to exist if alumni relations doesn’t feel obligated to include fundraising as part of our mission.


I understand Toyn’s central argument that we cannot allow alumni relations to abandon the personal, solicitation-free relationships we build with our constituents. We do need to develop those kinds of relationships with event attendees, volunteers, class officers, and club leaders. I would never advocate for washing our hands of that responsibility.

However, there’s no reason why engagement officers can’t be trained to know when someone is ready to make a gift, and then work with development to make that happen. That doesn’t cheapen a relationship because, if the alumna/us is actively involved and has the capacity to give, he or she isn’t going to be offended by an ask. Again, our alumni know why we want them at events in the first place.

Let’s assume you have a living alumni population of 100,000. Let’s also assume you have an annual giving rate of 8% (the national average). On average, about 3% of the total alumni population is tracked by major gifts. Let’s bump it up to 10% participation to account for the people gift officers are cultivating.

That leaves 90,000 alumni out there who are not giving back and that you need to engage. It would be impossible for gift officers to cover all that ground, so someone has to bring donors to the surface. This is why—not only is alumni relations not subordinate to development—but fundraising is actually largely dependent on alumni relations to fill the donor pipeline. That pipeline is much warmer with the aforementioned student and young alumni programs, but it also stresses the need for an effective digital engagement team in alumni relations, working with an eye towards fundraising.

It’s Not Your Job, It’s Not My Job, It’s OUR Job

If you work in alumni relations and you’re feeling subordinate to fundraising, it’s probably because you’re not utilizing the full power of your position. With that said, start looking through a fundraising lens when reviewing your events and engagement initiatives. You won’t be “cheapening” yourself or soiling relationships with alumni by doing so. Schools are becoming more business minded, which means they’re only investing in areas that create a return. You can’t expect a seat at the power table if you aren’t working together with your development team.

So, who has the power? The person that serves the cake and takes payment? Or the person who has the cabinet full of ingredients and the talent to make the cake? I’m not an expert on cake or cake metaphors, but I believe that alumni relations should embrace fundraising, not run from it. We’re owners of a whole book of recipes that—when used in partnership with development, emerging technology, and strategic data analysis—makes us subordinate to no one.

The main point though, is that the quest should not be for internal domination; it should be to open our arms and realize that our institutions need alumni relations and fundraising to work closely if we’re to overcome the increasingly difficult challenges facing higher education.

Now, I really want cake.

Download Keith’s whitepaper, “Dollars Over Donors: Is Higher Ed’s Reliance on the Wealthy Minority a Sustainable Strategy?” to learn more about working together to combat advancement’s biggest challenges.

Keith Hannon is the associate director for digital innovation for Cornell University Alumni Affairs & Development. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or catch him on Twitter @KeithHannon.

Want even more ideas on how to fundraise? Watch our webinar University Of Virginia: Mobilizing Gift Officers to learn more.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments