Advancement and alumni relations had a formula for engaging alumni that worked for decades. But young alumni these days are breaking that mold.
Their giving rates are lower. They attend fewer events. They give for different reasons, care about different causes, face different economic challenges, and have different perceptions of higher education and its worth than their older counterparts.
Yet for all our self awareness and new strategies, we're still only scratching the surface when it comes to solving the problems underlying the young alumni engagement deficit. The problem lies in how we define "engagement" in the first place.
We think of engagement as the process of shepherding alumni toward making gifts. We assume that if an alumnus reads a piece of news, volunteers, or attends an event, he or she feels more affinity (or something) toward his or her alma mater and moves closer to making a gift. All we have to do is put coins in the machine until a prize pops out.
We might not publicly—or even consciously—acknowledge it, but we understand engagement to be the means we use to lure alumni into giving. We offer them something—news, snacks, the chance to reconnect with old classmates—that ostensibly fortifies their institutional loyalty and then we ask them for a financial contribution in return.
But our wine tastings and class notes don't work on young alumni. They demand a fundamentally different sort of engagement. They don't want a lure—they want a ladder.
Our young alumni are in quite the predicament. They are delaying marriage, buying their first home, and giving back to their alma mater all because of student loan debt. Employers say college graduates are missing skills necessary to succeed in the work place, and the public is losing faith in the value of a college education. Not to mention nationwide wage stagnation and the alarming trend that most young people are not going on to earn as much as their parents.
Our young alumni climb the ladder to a successful career and prosperous life all through college only to graduate and find the next rungs missing.
Young alumni don't need cocktail mixers and reunions. They need help.
But not only are we offering the wrong engagement to our vulnerable young alumni, we're engaging them far less than other parts of our constituency.
We invest heavily in our older, established alumni once they become significant gift prospects. We have entire teams of staff dedicated to maintaining relationships with them. Our institutions invest heavily in our students. But we invest comparatively little in our relationships with young alumni.
We can't expect our pipeline for gift prospects to keep working as long as there's a break in the middle. And right now that is just what we have.
We need to stop equating cultivating donors with buttering them up and start cultivating them by actually helping them grow as human beings. If we can increase alumni capacity to give, we can reap the rewards for our institutions. That begins with fixing the broken ladder we give our young alumni.