by Jeff Small
I have a secret. I work in a firm that helps colleges and universities raise money, and I have never given a gift to my alma mater. I tell you this not to assuage my guilt, but in the hopes that it encourages institutions to think creatively as they work to engage young alumni.
In most ways, I should be a likely donor for my university. I had a great experience as an undergrad. I have a group of friends/classmates who still identify closely with the place. I’ve been back plenty of times since graduation even outside of reunions. I’m gainfully employed and have taken a career path that was directly influenced by my experiences there.
Two factors have led me to what is now a fairly set-in status as an alumni non-donor.
1. I chose a life of relative poverty compared to my classmates immediately following graduation. I spent two years serving in AmeriCorps then another two years in graduate school and didn’t have anything to give. For me it was easy to turn down the phonathon calls and throw away direct mail with a clear conscience. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip!
2. In those early years when I was getting requests for money, I got opportunities to contribute to other causes with my time. Whether it was volunteering in social service settings, participating in my church, observing programs throughout graduate school, or starting off in an entry level job at an organization doing a world of good, I found places I could feel productive even though I couldn’t afford to give money.
As a result, I not only got comfortable with the habit of not giving to my university, I also fell in love with other causes. Once my salary started to grow and I had the flexibility to give, my priorities were already set and the old alma mater was not among them.
My story is anecdotal, but it should give pause to plenty of annual fund and development officers out there as they look across a sea of new grads that have had their careers stunted by the economic downturn and slow recovery.
They can’t give right now, and like me, they may be getting firsthand experience with nonprofits either through volunteering, or even as clients. How can you stay relevant to these alums and assure that you don’t lose a generation of donors?
- Are there ways that I can help these alums contribute and stay connected without donating?
- Are my solicitation techniques habituating non-donorship?
- Can I take a holistic approach and find ways to aid young alums as they struggle to take their first steps in an uncertain career path?