Graduation Season: How to Develop a Plan for Relationship Building with Alumni

With the ever-increasing costs of higher education, graduation is rarely a fresh start for young adults. Instead, it can often be a time when graduates are facing the reality of having to pay off their four (or more) years worth of loans with entry-level salaries. Those first few years after graduation are also an important time for your university to start building a relationship with alumni—when their memories of college are still vivid and their loyalty is strong. But how do you balance the two? How do you get a young alumna to donate when she is still paying down the cost of attending your university in the first place?

You don’t.

Before you shake your head and close your browser, hear me out. I know those pledges add up, no matter how small the gift is or how few alumni pledge to give. So ask! But be respectful and creative when given the “not this year” response.

Here are some ideas for getting your cultivation plans for young alumni off to a great start:

1. Use phone-a-thons to gather information.

This is true even if the constituent declines to pledge. Coach your callers to ask a couple of quick, probing questions after the “no,” and assign solicit codes accordingly. May we call you again in six months? One year? Five years? Are you receiving our young alumni newsletters via email? Remember, you can use dictionaries in ImportOmatic to quickly translate solicit codes based on the information your team gathers, while hopefully also entering many pledges in the same import!

2. Recognize when you’re being wasteful.

I’ll admit it—there was a period of time when I was mad at my alma mater. They would call and ask me for a gift. I would say, “No, not until I pay down my college loans.” Then they would send me high-quality pamphlets and pledge cards that they hoped would inspire me to get over my grudge and donate. I wasn’t inspired. In fact, I was incensed. I wanted them to be better stewards of the money and data they already had, rather than just treating me as a line item in their list of contacts for that campaign. As my professors would have advised, they needed to take better notes! Make sure to track appeal responses and note those records who have not responded to multiple attempts. Query on records who have consistently been unresponsive and consider how you should change your approach.

3. Think beyond the dollar.

Alumni engagement is not just about fundraising. If an alum is unable or unwilling to give money, why not ask for his time instead? Send a personalized email, requesting help with an upcoming recruitment or alumni event in his area, or ask him to contribute his voice to the alumni newsletter. We’re looking to build a long-term relationship that will lead to donations when he is comfortable doing so.

4. Develop an alternative ten-year plan.

We all know student loans are usually on a ten-year payoff plan. When you have a group of donors who are playing the “student loan” card to avoid donating, take advantage of that information they’ve given you. Colleges and universities have the unique advantage of reunions. A ten-year reunion is a natural conversation starter and conveniently coincides with loan payoffs. How will you celebrate with them?

Colleges and universities are blessed with a perpetually-refilling donor pool, massive amounts of data on their constituents, and presumably intelligent volunteers. Use these advantages to build strong, lifelong relationships with all of your alumni, regardless of their financial situations after graduation.