As advancement offices work to boost their young alumni giving rates, many are investing in efforts to increase student giving first. Senior class gifts are a natural way to introduce students to philanthropy and build affinity for their alma mater at the same time, but senior gift programs aren't always easy to pull off.
Hamilton College has found a way to make it work. The college's senior gift program has generated over 90% senior class giving rates for decades—and that giving rate doesn't drop off much for years after those seniors graduate.
We asked Hamilton's Assistant Director of Annual Giving Angela Suppa to explain how they do it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work Hamilton has done to get senior giving to the rate it is now, and why it’s been a priority for Hamilton?
It hasn’t always been at this rate. 1982 was when we really said, “This is something. This is something we should do, get them ready, get them used to giving.” It stuck around 60%, then it started to get up to 80% in the 90s. Since 1994 we’ve been over 90%.
We wanted to give seniors a way to give and get used to giving.
Have there been measurable results or returns?
Absolutely. Our highest amount of participation was in 2013, when 98.6% of the senior class gave. This year, we raised the most money we ever have, with $53,920. That comes not only from seniors, but from seniors, senior parents, and matches.
Have you been able to measure an impact on giving of these classes down the line as well?
Yes. GOLD, Graduates of the Last Decade, that cohort, they do really well for the first five years out, and then they begin to taper off after those five years. Usually it stays fairly the same rate.
Wow, that’s an unusual pattern.
Yeah, we see good results for the senior gift. We also want to somehow implement it to get students used to giving as freshmen. We had an amazing gift from a student—an amazing amount of money. They had the means to do it, they wanted to do it, they love Hamilton as much as seniors do, so why not start them early.
It’s just a lot of work, the program is a monster.
Could you talk about what that looks like?
Hamilton College has a group called HALT: Hamilton Alumni Leadership Training. What this group is the spring of their junior year they have to apply for this program. We try to get students in every campus group, diversity group, friend group, sports group.
In this group, seniors are taught the ins and outs of Hamilton. They have a sit-down lunch with the president, sometimes at the president’s house, they hear from our admissions VP, they hear from trustees, they have networking opportunities. They’re invited to pretty much every event on campus. We had about 70 this year.
These 70 are automatically on the senior gift committee. They’re the cream of the crop. We know they can reach out to everybody, we know they love Hamilton, we know they’re involved. The members of the committee are the ones who reach out to their classmates.
To manage them, we have three, sometimes four senior gift co-chairs. They apply, they interview. It’s not a lengthy process, but it takes time to think about who would be a good senior gift co-chair. We need to have people who are not afraid to go up to a classmate and say, "You love Hamilton, Hamilton loves you. We really need your support." This year, we had three senior gift co-chairs, and they were great.
We met once a week and found ways to reach out to students. We asked the committee, "What do you think Hamilton can use? What do you want to give back to Hamilton as a class?" We all throw out ideas, we get them approved, then we send out a survey to the entire senior class, and they have five options to choose from for their senior gift.
This year we chose an endowment gift for the counselling center. They wanted to do an endowment gift because it isn't a one-time gift, and they can keep giving to it. It’s something to look forward to.
Once we announce the senior gift, we start collecting donations and do a senior gift pub night on campus. It’s on a Thursday night, usually in December. We have a senior design a mug—if the students donate $5, they get a free drink in the mug and that goes toward the senior gift. We always have a pretty good turn out. We do games, they have karaoke, it’s fun. It gets them all together the week before they leave for break.
We also meet with the whole committee and ask each member of the committee to choose five people to reach out to. That’s how we tie in the campus groups they’re associated with so that it’s a friend asking a friend rather than a stranger asking a stranger.
Lastly, we have something on campus here called senior week. After classes are done, all underclassmen leave and just seniors are left. Student Activities plans the whole week for them. They don’t have anything else to do but hang out, party, be with their classmates before they never see them again. It’s $100 for a ticket for the entire week. We have a gala, a lobster bake, all these events planned just for them. The senior gift program buys five senior week passes: If you already gave to the senior gift, you’re in the running to win one of these passes. If you haven’t you can give to in order to be in the running. Those are probably what really bring in the gifts, rather than just the students’ love for Hamilton.
It’s not hard for us to reach high participation because the students love Hamilton, and they want to give back to Hamilton as much as they can. They want to help Hamilton as much as Hamilton has helped them.
So this has really been a long-term goal and project of Hamilton’s. For other institutions that decide to make senior giving a goal, what advice would yo offer them?
My only advice is that you have to do something the students are passionate about. My senior gift co-chairs are so passionate about Hamilton. Just talking to someone, their love for Hamilton shines through, and it’s hard for someone to say no.
It’s hard—I don’t know how exactly to put this into words—students need to have love for the school as a whole. Senior gifts can’t do that on their own. You need to find students who love Hamilton so they can, not tell you why, but make you see why you love Hamilton already. HALT lets our students see Hamilton in a way that they wouldn’t have, and then they teach their classmates about that. It’s inadvertantly giving them new ways to love Hamilton and letting that shine through on their classmates.