Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Long Look at Philanthropy (Part II)

In my last blog post, I expressed concern that philanthropy-seeking organizations, by placing too much emphasis on short-term results, may be undermining their greater long-term potential if not damaging philanthropy itself. I turned to higher education as a case in point, arguing that the most successful colleges and universities will be those that nurture philanthropic interaction as soon as new students set foot on campus and continue to sustain that interaction for the next 50 years. I argued that the failure to see the process in anything less than 50-year terms would consign colleges and universities to the expense of remedial relationship building. I said the most important period in that 50-year span were the undergraduate years and offered suggestions as to how colleges and universities could make better use of that formative period. Now, let’s turn to the second most important phase – the first five years after graduation.

Why do I say this phase is second in importance to only the undergraduate years? Because it is a period in which life-long patterns begin to form. If we successfully engage recent graduates as donors or volunteers, approximately 80 percent will persist in those patterns for the rest of their lives. We may have to spend a dollar to raise a dollar in that time but, to my central thesis, the long-term return will be quite significant. If we fail to engage a significant portion of this highly-mobile population, we will have to expend more time, effort and money to engage them down the road with a lower probability of success.

The best way to engage and deepen connections with young alumni is to help build their careers. Obviously, a strong career planning and placement office on campus is of immense importance but it can be made even more effective if it draws on employer-student relations developed with a broad, rich internship program (or co-op program) and if the whole is nested within a well-developed alumni network. As the world changes, it is important for advancement operations to monitor the migration of young graduates to determine where the majority are going to make their names and to have services there waiting for them. If 75 percent of their recently-graduated alumni are relocating to five major cities, then 75 percent of their services should be dedicated to those areas. The more that can be done to help recent graduates get their career legs under them, the more it will redound to the long-term benefit of the institution.

Anything that can be done in the name of career mentoring and networking will be of value but there is no substitute for a permanent presence in key geographical areas. Mature and successful alumni must be organized and chartered to create career-oriented alliances. Georgetown University has the Wall Street Alliance in New York City and its equivalent, the City Alliance, in London. It also has the Bay Area Alliance for those in high-tech careers in the San Francisco area, the Entertainment and Media Alliance in Los Angeles, and the Latin American Alliance in Miami. To be successful, these alliances must be largely self-reliant and require little assistance from the campus. Graduating students must know of these alliances and let the campus know they are moving into a target area so they can be told how to avail themselves of local services.

Yes, alumni chapters and clubs remain a very important element in keeping young alumni involved. In my experience, most alumni chapters are the province of young graduates and allow them to socialize, network and attend game-watching parties. But alumni chapters need to serve a broad, diverse constituency. Career alliances should complement alumni chapter activities but allow alumni to network in and around the dominant industry in a particular city.

In these extraordinarily difficult times, colleges and universities need to do the very best they can to reach out to young alumni who are having trouble finding jobs. At the end of the day, there may be too many young people in the market and too few jobs to go around. But these institutions must try; they must offer career planning sessions and opportunities to meet successful alumni who will serve as mentors. Even if they can only commiserate, young alums will not feel abandoned upon graduation.

Another way that institutions of higher learning can foster long-term alumni affiliation is to address to the issue of financial aid debt. The onus of that debt is the very reason that many young alumni don’t contribute to their alma mater. They pay of their bills first and then they give back but retiring financial aid debt can take a decade or more. While there may be no easy answers on how to do this, students and young alumni will give their college or university credit for trying, for making the case to donors about better financial packets that require low or no loans, for creating public service scholarships that forgive the debts of students or young alumni who seek to help the disadvantaged, and for being impassioned advocates for federal grants and low-cost loans.

Since this population is so mobile, institutions of higher learning must provide incentives for young alumni to keep in touch. After career advice and networking, young alums are most interested in the whereabouts of their classmates. Most seem to stay in touch with each other through virtual networks but it is still wise for colleges and universities to promote the submission of class notes and to provide ways for alumni to connect with each other on-line through virtual yearbooks or other systems.

To get young alumni to give merely by asking them repeatedly is the worst of all strategies. Fund raising is a legitimate way of building alumni engagement but it cannot be a stand alone activity. If it is, resentment will build and many potential donors will fall away because of what they see as the incessant drum-beating of a tin-eared alma mater.

Fund raising appeals to young alumni should focus on securing modest gifts but that doesn’t mean that the emphasis should be on the percentage of participation for its own sake. A strong, specific case needs to be made to young alumni so that they can understand how a small gift can make an impact, as would be the case with financial aid.

In my next blog, I will speak to the third most important part of the 50-year span, the 15-year milestone, a very powerful predictor of significant future support.

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