Sunday, May 2, 2010

Barriers to Alumni Giving (Part II)

In my last post, I shared what annual fund directors guessed would be the most significant barriers to alumni giving. Now let’s compare their guesses to the actual answers of alumni. The greatest barriers, in order of importance, as perceived by 500 alumni, donors and non-donors, from the 100 most prominent universities, were: (vs. the ranking the annual fund directors assigned to each statement in parenthesis):

  1. I feel that I’ve paid enough already for tuition. (6)
  2. I don’t think the school really needs the money. (1)
  3. I haven’t been given a good enough reason to give. (5)
  4. I don’t feel a deep emotional connection to the school. (11)
  5. They haven’t done enough to connect with me beyond asking for money. (3)
  6. I feel like the donations go into a “black hole.” (4)
  7. I want my donations to go for a specific purpose and don’t have that option. (8)
  8. I feel like a small gift won’t make a difference. (2)
  9. I’m confused about the difference between the various fundraising programs. (7)
  10. I’m unhappy with the direction in which the school is headed. (8)
  11. They haven’t been aggressive enough in asking for money. (12)
  12. There has been bad publicity about the school. (10)

So the biggest disparities between the feelings of the alumni and the guesses of the annual fund directors were around the issues of tuition, emotional connection and the importance of small gifts. Tuition was the greatest perceived barrier of the alumni, save those age 65 and older, and by a wide margin over the next answer. And that’s what makes this survey particularly worthy of our attention. A deeper examination of the alumni responses shows that young alumni have a stronger emotional connection but spend ten years after graduation paying off their student loans. But, by the time they have retired those debts, they’ve lost emotional connection. Then, when they reach their peak earning years, the are solicited more actively for ill-defined purposes from an institution to which they no longer feel connected. This explains, as vividly as anything I have seen, why alumni participation has steadily declined over the years, despite more strenuous fund raising efforts, to its lowest recorded ebb.

Yet, we should note that nowhere in this list of barriers did we see, “I don’t have the money” or “I don’t believe in giving.” Given the impact of economic contraction of the past two years, those are remarkable omissions. Other polls, particularly the Fidelity/VolunteerWatch survey, show most Americans still very willing to give their time and money to what they see as important causes and institutions. And, while I can’t prove it by these data alone, I believe these alumni are expressing disillusionment with the absence or loss of emotional connection. I believe they want their “alma mater” to be what that Latin phrase actually means -- “nourishing mother.” They want to believe in her, to understand where she is going, what she is struggling against and striving for, and to know where they can make a real difference with their time, talent and treasure.

The colleges and universities that have the highest rate of alumni participation already know this. The ones that are listening, learning and responding have the best chance of turning the situation around. And, those that continue to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of their sons and daughters, who think they need only ask for more and more often, will exacerbate the frustrations of their alumni and continue to erode their potential base of support.

No comments: