Giving programs: How focusing on the ‘whole alum’ pays off

An integrated, personalized and meaningful engagement strategy brings in more than just gifts
By: | December 9, 2019
(gettyimages.com: Mykyta Dolmatov)(gettyimages.com: Mykyta Dolmatov)
Robert Anderson is vice president for alumni relations and development at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.

Robert Anderson is vice president for alumni relations and development at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.

Higher education’s loyalty donors are “aging out” of the donor pool, making room for more investment-oriented and experiential donors. This does not bode well for most fundraising shops that are siloed or driven by sales-force metrics.

For years, consultants and fundraising seminars preached metrics, requiring a defined number of visits, asks and closed gifts from the “sales” team. This sales approach worked for loyalty donors, but at Albion College in Michigan, we have found it quickly becomes irksome to the investment and experiential donors who now make up most of higher education’s major gift prospects.

This shift impacts annual giving, midlevel donors and alumni engagement because alumni of all ages are starting to think differently about philanthropy. They want impact. They want to feel the difference they make. And they want the experience to relate to their own experience when they were students.

‘Personal and meaningful’

Following this metric-centered approach, Albion went through years of unremarkable fundraising results. Alumni relations staff saw fundraising as an uncomfortable process and relied on consultants who used hard sales practices that could “burn out” alumni donors. Major gifts were impossible as gift officers could not even get prospects to pick up the phone. Alumni relations success was defined as “butts in seats.”


Read: Guiding the alumni giving circle


Money was raised, but it was a fraction of what should have been raised. The fundraising practices had to change. So college administrators reviewed and overhauled the Albion program.

Gone were the alumni relations, annual giving and major gifts teams. They were integrated into one engagement team. The new team’s mission: to give alumni and donors the same personal and meaningful experience that Albion gives its students.

“Personal and meaningful” has become a mantra as well as a measuring stick. Replacing the standard metrics is a scorecard that fosters a personal and meaningful relationship in all outreach—even mass appeals. As a result, alumni passion has increased as measured by event, social media, annual giving and major gift successes.

Alumni passion has increased as measured by event, social media, annual giving and major gift successes.

In addition, a large contingent of student employees were hired to strengthen the team, making members more passionate and excited about their work.

Taking a holistic approach

Traveling as a team and using two- or three-day city visits, staff created engagement events that were supported by personal and individual visits as well as small gatherings for dinner. This approach created an energy for Albion that had not been possible before—for fundraising, student recruitment outreach, and volunteer and mentoring engagement. You read that correctly: The team adopted the mission of Admissions as well as the Career Center as part of a holistic approach to alumni.

We wanted more from our alumni than dollars. We wanted their connections, their help in recruiting students, their technical abilities, and even their help in rebuilding Albion’s host community. Team members focused on the whole alum, and they brought back far more than a single gift.

Driving up results

It has been over four years since Albion blew up its fundraising program, and the results have been stunning:

  • Albion fundraising averaged $6 million annually for the five years prior to the new approach. In the four full years since we integrated, working toward personal and meaningful engagement, the average is almost $19 million annually.
  • Year after year, the record for major gifts has been driven up. Over the past year, we broke the record three times, with successively higher transformative gifts. Prior to the integration, there had only been one seven-figure gift to Albion in well over 10 years. In the last three years, we’ve averaged one seven-figure gift every other month.
  • Annual giving (using individual gifts) has also dramatically increased. The average gift size has more than tripled in the past four years.
  • And almost $50 million has been invested in our host community because of our holistic approach.

Today’s donors are less loyal. They may be more outcome-focused or they may be more experience-focused. For both of these new donor trends, an integrated, personalized and meaningful engagement strategy beats sales-driven metric fundraising programs. Higher education stands to benefit from both investor and experiential donor trends—if we can break internal silos and divisions to build personal and meaningful relationships. 


Robert Anderson is vice president for alumni relations and development at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.