The 5 key strategies to keep alumni active, engaged and giving

Targeting those who were involved in clubs and athletics over all past students is a smart strategy, researchers say.
By: | October 5, 2021
© Carnegie Mellon University. All rights reserved

Students who were engaged in activities when they attended colleges and universities are far more likely to continue their involvement and gift-giving as alumni, according to a new report from solutions provider Anthology.

In a study conducted of more than 2,000 recent graduates—those who earned various degrees over the past nine years—researchers noted that almost 80% of those involved in academic and social clubs or athletics were also active after they had left their institutions. That number spiked to 90% for club officers. However, more than 50% of those who were not engaged as students were not involved as alums.

Anthology CEO Jim Milton said institutions that take a more personalized approach with students while they are on campus likely will do better in retaining their interest after degrees have been conferred.

“Today’s landscape of learners is more diverse and varied than ever before, so we must make a concerted effort to get to know each student to meet their individual experience needs based on interests and degree pursuits,” he said. “This will go a long way in strengthening student and alumni relationships with institutions during their time attending college and beyond. As the results of the study show, this investment in a personalized, data-driven student engagement approach is integral to establishing strong post-graduate alumni engagement and leads to meaningful, lifelong alumni connections.”

Inside the survey

From its Recent Alumni: Interest, Involvement and Opportunity Survey, 40% of those who were involved were part of academic clubs and a third were involved in intramural sports, while a surprising quarter were actively involved in esports, or competitive video gaming.

There was a definite split among more recent alumni and those who had earned degrees in 2018 in terms of giving back and how they want to remain connected. Half of recent alumni (2019 to 2021) indicted that they are interested in career-related information and discounts or promotions, while older alumni appreciate the chance to network. Overall, a third enjoy making connections through big events such as homecomings and reunions and learning more about the clubs they were involved in. Very few indicated an interest in hearing about faculty news and research or updates on fellow alumni (14%).

Two statistics that stood out in the survey:

  1. Alumni who remained actively connected with their institutions were four times more likely to donate than those who were not.
  2. Content in communication is a huge driver of gift-giving. Those who like what they see are five times more likely to give back.

So where do alumni want to target those gifts?

Most are interested in directly donating to student funds, while more than 40% say they would consider giving to the annual fund. About a third would target specific academic departments. Around a quarter would offer gifts to athletics or student groups.

They’d also be willing to go beyond simply donating money. More than 50% said they would help current students by “being a mentor” and many would offer words of encouragement if asked. The Anthology team, led by senior director of engagement strategy Mirko Widenhorn, said that student assistance could help keep alumni in the pipeline throughout their lives.

One of several key strategies for colleges and universities to consider is squarely targeting those who are active participants, not those who simply attended the college or university. Anthology says that can save institutions time and money and put the focus on those more likely to get involved personally, financially or both.

Four other considerations include:

  • Differentiating outreach from time to time among the two groups—older alumni vs. more recent alumni—but highlighting prominently any networking opportunities since both are interested.
  • Working more closely with student affairs and student activities groups to help boost the involvement of those who are officers and participants post-graduation.
  • Though hosting virtual events did not score well overall among those activities alumni want, a third nonetheless indicated a strong preference to have that option when it comes to choosing between in-person and remote options. Colleges should continue those strategies at least through the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • More specifically, when asking about fundraising or gift-giving, target communications to focus on how those donations could benefit students more than the institution itself.