Startling Drop in Alumni Giving

Startling Drop in Alumni Giving

August 14th, 2013

by Dan Schipp


Recently, in compiling an alumni giving comparison for a client, I took a closer look at the data from the 2012 Voluntary Support of Education published by the Council for Aid to Education.  The statistics, of course, were sobering.  We are all well aware of the decline in the percentage of alumni giving to their alma maters.  What struck me was the extent of the decline – nearly 50% in just over 20 years!

Over the past forty years the percentage of alumni giving to all colleges and universities peaked in 1990 at approximately 18%.  In 2012 the alumni giving participation rate was 9.2%, down from 9.5% in 2011 and 9.8% in 2010.  The participation rates for different types of higher education institutions ranged from a low of 0.7% for public associate degree-granting colleges to 4.5% for public Master’s degree universities to 9.5% for private Master’s degree universities to a high of 21.5% for private baccalaureate institutions. (All of these types declined from 2011 except for the public associate degree-granting colleges which remained the same.)

Not only did the percentage of alumni contributing to their schools decline in 2012, so did the size of the average gift and the total amount contributed by alumni.  In 2012 the average alumnus gift was $1,206, compared to $1,224 in 2011 – a drop of 1.5%.  In 2011 alumni gave a collective total of $7.8 billion to higher education. In 2012 that total was $7.7 billion.

It is clear higher education has a challenge on its hands. Yes, the decline in the percentage of alumni making gifts to their alma maters is partly due to colleges and universities, thanks to technology, being able to do a much better job of identifying, tracking and contacting their alumni.  Thus, the number of alumni of record (the denominator in the calculation used to determine the participation rate) is increasing much faster than the number of donors (the numerator).  But there are other factors as well – changing generational attitudes toward giving, the impact of substantial college debt, fundraising techniques that have run their course, and lack of effective engagement with alumni.

What can colleges and universities do to reverse this trend?  I suggest a place to start is by asking the following questions:

  • Are we helping our students understand, while they are on campus, the importance of giving to their alma mater and the impact it has?  Are we engaging them in philanthropy as students?
  • Are we building strong relations with our alumni?  Are we offering them meaningful opportunities, beyond giving, to engage with the university community?  Are we assisting them with networking and career services?  Are we inviting them to return to campus to do class presentations and lectures and to meet with students and faculty?  Are we asking for their input and ideas?
  • Are we using a multi-channel approach in our efforts to encourage their financial support?  How well are we coordinating our use of social media, email, direct mail, phone and personal contact?  Are we conveying a consistent, compelling message of impact?
  • Are we willing to experiment, innovate and be creative?
  • Are we asking enough of our alums?  Are we providing them with opportunities to make a difference?


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