Colleges and universities could do more to tap their nontraditional alumni base. Here’s how.
by Gaetan Giannini
It is no secret that higher education is at an inflection point. Colleges and universities are facing academic, financial, and social pressures like never before. Kevin Carey (2020) points out that, according to estimates by the college financial planning firm Edmit, “thanks to declining revenue and investment returns, one-third of all private colleges are now on track to run out of money within six years — a nearly 50 percent increase in estimates from 2019 — and many are vulnerable to bankruptcy much sooner” (para. 1).
In order to stay afloat, these colleges and universities will need to find new ways to engage with alumni and increase their fundraising — strategies that support both their financial health and the community of supporters invested in their success. Today, overall philanthropic participation of nontraditional alumni (graduates who attended a postsecondary institution five or more years post-high school graduation), while a growing portion of the student and alumni body at many colleges and universities, lags behind that of traditional alumni.
Given the ever-increasing financial pressures on these institutions, customized solicitation approaches, particularly the use of media and targeted messages, need to be created to increase giving amounts and frequency among this population. This article highlights a portion of a dissertation that investigated the factors that encourage nontraditional alumni to give to their alma maters while uncovering best practices for fundraising campaign design by advancement offices (Giannini, 2019).
Significance of the Adult Learner
In its report, A Stronger Nation: Learning Beyond High School Builds American Talent (2017), the Lumina Foundation estimates that by 2025, 16.4 million additional people will need to hold a postsecondary credential to meet the needs of the U.S. economy. The report recognizes the significance of traditional-age students (aged 18-22) but stresses that this population gets the most attention from policymakers and educators even though it is no longer the largest or most critical segment of students or alumni.
The balance of the people needed to bridge the credentialing gap will have to come from the pool of returning adult students and adults with no recognized postsecondary education. As such, nearly 12 million adult learners may be seeking postsecondary credentials in the next few years, making the nontraditional population the dominant segment of potential donors for decades to come.
Marketing and Psychological Factors for Higher Education Fundraising
In my time as an academic dean and chief marketing officer at institutions that served significant number of nontraditional learners, it became apparent to me that engaging these students and alumni could have a powerful positive effect on the sustainability of the colleges I worked for and schools across the country. So, when pursuing my doctorate as a nontraditional student myself, I wanted to investigate how advancement offices within higher education could reach these non-traditional students and bring them into the fold of alumni giving. My study used Robert Cialdini’s (2009) six factors of influence as a framework for understanding how advancement professionals can influence nontraditional alumni’s philanthropic decision-making process.
Cialdini identifies six elements of persuasion – reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus – and applies them to both marketing and everyday life, suggesting that reaction to such forms of persuasion are, to some degree, hardwired into humans and have become cultural norms to which we all need to respond or suffer societal repercussions.
- The reciprocity factor is the obligation to give back to others in the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received from them (Cialdini, 2009). This factor suggests that advancement professionals should discover and serve the donor’s interests and passions to help them “fulfill their hearts’ desires” as they relate to their giving, rather than to use the “gimme the money” approach (Perry & Schreifels, 2015a).
- Scarcity is a factor that Cialdini defines as the belief that things in short supply are highly desirable. Fundraisers might use scarcity to make clear to donors the consequences of not taking action on a particular problem, conveying that the college will lose something if the donor does not help (Perry & Schreifels, 2015b).
- The notion that people follow the lead of credible experts is the essence of the factor of authority. This factor urges solicitations that use experts and other donors to create trust through conversations and testimonials on marketing collateral.
- Consistency is a factor of influence based on the observation that people like to have their actions square with the things they have previously said or done. This can include sticking to routine behavior or simply keeping their word. The consistency principle suggests that getting a donor to commit to anything moves them closer to contributing (Perry & Schreifels, 2015c). Further, asking people to commit to donating future earnings will result in more donations over asking for a donation now. This, in turn, invokes the principle of time-distance, which decreases the pain of sacrifice (Oppenheimer & Olivola, 2016).
- Liking, perhaps the simplest and most obvious of Cialdini’s factors, reminds us that people prefer to say yes to those that they like. Consequently, fundraising professionals need to present solicitations that potential donors like, and chief advancement officers need to have amiable staff members to work with potential donors on all solicitations.
- Consensus, also known as social proof, illustrates that people will look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own in the face of uncertainty. Therefore, when meeting a donor, this principle advocates using other donors’ names as proof of participation in the cause and indicating broad participation in reaching the fundraising goal at hand (Perry & Schreifels, 2015d).
Using Cialdini’s factors as a guide, my study examined colleges and universities’ practices relative to soliciting regular donations from nontraditional alumni and pointed the way to improved practices to cultivate support. In this research, two general themes emerged to inform best practices for fundraising from the nontraditional audience and to guide campaign design:
- The need to create affiliation while they are still students through targeted initiatives like activities, events, and communication from the institution designed specifically for this market segment (Hurst, 2008); and
- The need to overcome this cohort’s reluctance to contribute to “on-campus” initiatives.
Given the fact that the typical nontraditional student has family responsibilities, works full time, does not live on campus, and attends school part-time (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.), it is no surprise that they experience feelings of social isolation and lack a sense of belonging in their campus community (Gonclaves & Trunk, 2014). This circumstance can cause fundraising appeals for on-campus initiatives — such as building a residence hall, athletic facilities, or student centers — to receive a tepid response from nontraditional alumni.
However, when it comes to giving that is not campus-based, such as scholarships for nontraditional students and funding for new faculty to teach off-campus, nontraditional alumni are equally as likely to donate as alumni who studied as traditional students (Hurst, 2008). When it comes to nontraditional alumni’s willingness to support causes that benefit students similar to them in age and circumstance, community integration, and the affinity that results, trumps disposable income (Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2014).
Target, Track, and Subsegment Non-Traditional Alumni
The literature and this study are consistent in uncovering the lack of attention given to nontraditional alumni as a discrete segment of an institution’s audience, despite compelling evidence that this population is growing in size and importance. Therefore, this study’s primary recommendation is for colleges and universities to recognize this cohort as a distinct population and to design specific philanthropic solicitation campaigns, processes, and metrics accordingly.
Furthermore, nontraditional alumni are not themselves a monolithic block. Advancement officers should align appeals with multiple nontraditional alumni donor groups’ issues or interests, using the most appropriate factors of influence (such as those outlined above) in their messaging strategy.
Create Affinity for Nontraditional Students
While there is no apparent harm in creating affinity groups (people having a common interest or goal, or acting together for a specific purpose) for nontraditional alumni after they graduate, potential donors develop lasting affinity when socialized into a culture of philanthropy while they are still students.
Future alumni form higher levels of community integration when experiencing a collection of meaningful shared experiences that foster strong interpersonal ties and build institutional identity (McAlexander, Koenig, & DuFault, 2014). Such a strategy can be more influential in the giving decision than wealth levels — a significant point for a student population that is being educated later in their careers and may not have the same financial means or wherewithal as traditional alumni.
Be Specific and Intentional with Messaging
It is essential that the messaging directed at this group be consistent and not conflated with messaging designed for the traditional student or alumni audience. The purpose of the cultivation of affinity is to create a connection between the institution’s philanthropic needs and the inclinations of nontraditional alumni. Therefore, this audience should receive solicitations aligned with initiatives that support students who share similar circumstances and programs that serve those students. An appeal to raise funds to upgrade a cafeteria or residence hall lounge would be incongruous for this audience and ultimately ineffective.
The literature suggests, and this study begins to show evidence that using Cialdini’s factors of influence in the design of philanthropic campaigns can positively impact fundraising effectiveness among nontraditional alumni. This is not to suggest that these factors of persuasion are ineffective with traditional alumni or other target groups, but tailoring solicitations to the giving triggers of nontraditional alumni can increase their participation.
Cialdini’s work is a useful tool in crafting fundraising campaigns because it gives fundraising officers a framework that steps away from the rational cost/benefit appeal and simplifies the construction of appeals that use an emotional approach. Such a strategy is useful because it can increase connection between the donor and the college by focusing on mutual interests (Small, 2016). Ultimately, building bridges with nontraditional alumni based on a personal connection can complete the road to a sustainable funding source that comes with enhanced affinity from this important audience.
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Perry, R., & Schreifels, J. (2015a, May 27). Reciprocation: #1 of six principles of influence for fundraising. Veritus Group. https://veritusgroup.com/reciprocation-1-of-six-principles-of-influence-for-fundraising/
Perry, R., & Schreifels, J. (2015b, June 3). Scarcity: #4 of six principles of influence for fundraising. Veritus Group. https://veritusgroup.com/scarcity-4-of-six-principles-of-influence-for-fundraising/
Perry, R., & Schreifels, J. (2015c, June 1). Commitment and consistency: #3 of six principles of influence for fundraising. Veritus Group.https://veritusgroup.com/commitment-consistency-3-of-six-principles-of-influence-for-fundraising/
Perry, R., & Schreifels, J. (2015d, June 8). Consensus: #6 of six principles of influence for fundraising. Veritus Group. https://veritusgroup.com/consensus-6-of-six-principles-of-influence-for-fundraising/
Small, D. A. (2016). Sympathy biases and sympathy appeals: Reducing social distance to boost charitable contributions. In D. M. Oppenheimer, & C. Y. Olivola, The science of giving: Experimental approaches to the study of charity (pp. 146-160). New York, NY: Routledge.