Why Young Alumni Don’t Give

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Sam Huleatt, a recent MBA graduate, who blogs at LeveragingIdeas.com and serves on the Executive Alumni Council of Johns Hopkins University. Sam is co-founder of PrepNY, which builds customized social networks for private schools.

By Sam Huleatt

Why Young Alumni Don’t Give and A Reason Why They Might

Development officers everywhere are frustrated. Alumni giving, especially from recent graduates is at historic lows. Theoretically, the most impactful donations come from older, more established alumni making major gifts (in the million plus range). However, ‘giving’ as a percentage of total alumni population is an underappreciated metric. The higher the percentage of contributing alumni (no matter the amount), the more brand integrity a school has (and the better the ranking). Schools that have a large percentage of donating alumni, especially among younger alums, are encouraging a mindset that spans beyond money. A donation from a younger alumnus is a powerful statement that his or her experience really meant something to them. In addition to foreshadowing future giving (likely at a more substantial amount), the same alumni who donate money are the ones helping promote evangelize the school brand, network and help students with jobs and volunteer for development efforts.

The question is why giving among young alumni is at historic lows? Can it be reversed?

First, schools need to revaluate what constitutes “giving.” A recent graduate may not be able to afford an annual gift of $200, but if they help a rising senior find a job, isn’t that worth something? When was the last time a school published a list of alumni who helped find other alumni or students jobs over a given year? Don’t these people deserve credit? In fact, the trend among some of the wealthiest alumni is not to give money to their alma maters at all. Thus, providing recognition for alternative forms of giving to alumni of all ages will likely be an ongoing need.

Second, schools falsely assume alumni will ‘give for the sake of giving’. With the costs of private high schools and colleges accelerating, the last thing on recent graduates minds is spending more. Schools completely ignore the obvious from sales 101: providing value. Schools severely lack in offering any sort of post-graduation value. Well-endowed universities like Harvard, or elite high schools like Phillips Exeter are able to afford post-graduation value through cocktail hours, alumni social networks, clubs and networking. They understand that to make money, requires spending money. However, all schools can provide value at little cost by simply capitalizing on their most valuable asset: their network.

Third, many schools instantaneously loose their relevance upon a student’s graduation. This largely occurs because schools fail to embrace the communications mediums being used by their young alumni. Few persons in the 18-34 demographic see print materials (e.g. alumni magazines) as relevant forms of communication. Why wait four months for “class notes” when you could simply check Facebook to see what a friend is up to? Schools also fail in the obvious; making giving easy. Young alumni are not lazy, but they are creatures of habit. When someone becomes accustomed to paying bills online, buying groceries with a debit card and ordering movie tickets over a mobile phone, why would they change their comfort zone to give charitably? Though it sounds obvious, schools forget to offer payment options using the technology young persons are most accustomed to. It would likely shock most development officers as to the percentage of young alumni who don’t write checks, or own stamps.

In conclusion, schools need to find a new medium by which to appeal to their young alumni. They must also provide them with the incentives to ‘give’ in a number of different contexts. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this at low cost is by leveraging the social network that already exists among an active alumni base using technology. The popularity of online social networks happened for a reason – the ability to connect, find and access people and information 24/7 is a huge source of value. Fortunately for schools, the opportunity to take advantage of online social networking has never been better.


  1. PhilDeely says:

    Wanted to pass along 2 posted comments…


    You raise some great points. I’m a young graduate myself from a great private college. Just to reiterate your point, whenever I recieve a fundraising notice from my school the first thing I do is throw it in the trash.

    Question, why dont schools create private social networks like Facebook where alums would go and network? You could also provide easy donations methods through eash schools network.

    Whoever decides to build such an application will do quite well especially with all the issues surrounding Facebook these days.

    November 6, 2007 4:26 PM
    Maisie said…
    This post is great! As a youngish alum of various schools I am often inundated with development mailings.

    To be honest, unless they are tied to something specific regarding my personal experience (aka class notes, about a former teacher, from someone I actually know), I often chuck them.

    Ok, thats kind of a lie, even if there is a good hook I often don’t read. Why? Like the above commenter, I don’t really ‘do paper’. Reading real mail seems sooo slow.

    All things electronic get to me faster, and since I work at a desk/computer, I am more likely to be ‘on’ and focused when reading email.

    However, having recently become professionally involved in the development world I will have to get better about participation!

  2. Don’t own stamps… Talk about digital natives! I love the previous comment “I don’t really ‘do paper’”

    I would guess that colleges, compared to most nonprofits, have an unique opportunity to connect with young donors since they have a real connection to the school and they are all college grads (ie. decent income).

    Sam, can you point to any school who are doing the online network thing well?

  3. The reason I don’t give is that – while I was a student – I received little help from my schools (undergrad and grad). I had to pay for everything. I have a huge student loan.

    After I graduated, I also found little help or support from my schools.

    The job placement has always been a joke.

    The Alumni Social Events don’t take into account family Life. Who wants to get together for drinks after work, or visit an art gallery on a Friday night when you have a baby at home?

    In short, the schools and alumni groups need to build loyalty and brand recognition.

    People who have the extra cash – well – they are always willing to help and most of them are very generous. The rest of us have student loans to pay.


  4. In other words you don’t support your school because you don’t particularly think they did a great job and whether you are solicited by mail or online doesn’t matter.

    I think it is key for nonprofits to remember that the best way to get donations is to make sure that donors love you, then move on to the best way to solicit donations.

  5. Hi Sean,

    Exactly. Education wise, the big name schools I attended for BA & MA didn’t do anything extraordinary. I mean – I attended Junior Colleges so I was able to compare the different schools. It was all the same: Powerpoints, Thick Books, and Homework.

    You definitely nailed it: They forgot to build the Love. The Loyalty. For the teachers that made a difference, I still talk to them. I would rather build personal relationships with them than with an “institution”.

    As far as solicitation methods, they don’t really matter when you care about the cause. WorldVision emails, sends regular mail, and (very rarely) calls me. I don’t mind giving to them. It’s all about the Love.


  6. Sam says:

    Social networks exist at many schools such as Dartmouth and Stanford. Actually, Stanford has several networks including a new one focused on ‘healthy living.’ See: http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/10/23/stanford-wants-its-students-to-be-healthy-as-well-as-rich/

    The issue is that most school falsely believe their current online directories are in fact social networks. Profiles and group features do not equal a community. What schools don’t understand is that alumni need to engage each other, not simply content.


  7. PhilDeely says:

    Many years ago [c.1975] I was one of the AF representatives for my 1969 Hobart class and we too despaired about lack of participation. We secured 100’s of crisp, new $1 bills and sent one to each classmate with a note saying the College had always been there in the past and that, if necessary, the $1 could be used for food, phone, or bail money! On the other hand if circumstances permitted we invited class mates to reach into their wallets and match and return to the Fund. As I recollect we got a lot of 1x gifts and some wise remarks…but for young alumni it hit the right note.

  8. Maya Norton says:

    Hi Sam,

    Great ideas. I found your entry inspiring and am crafting a three post series around this idea. I’ll post links when I do (and hey, you get an extra comment).

    In my opinion, an alumni giving office must do three things to prove to me that my giving will be of value to them.

    1. I have to get the message that my giving will be appreciated regardless of the dollar amount

    2. I need to feel in control of how my dollars are used, as a donor as a larger donor would

    3. I have to feel as if my donation benefits the community and increases my ability to support the institution in a way that has value

    That being said, it doesn’t answer the question of how an alumni giving office can make this happen– but I will tell you. I need to be receiving holistic messages of community involvement from my alumni office in which the gift I make will only be one part of that.

    I need to feel as my contribution to my
    institute of education is more valuable than what comes out of my pocketbook and that they are seeking my personal value as a contributer and that I am not just a check in a box or a dollar in a piggy bank.

    Fortunately, I graduated with an absolutely stellar education from both my high school and college and they are in regular communication with their goals and promotional material, so I have a really good sense of how this works.

    Sam, from you, and also from the other commenters, I wonder what would need to happen for you to give to your school? Are there two or three things that they could do to make you want to give? What would they be?

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Maya Norton

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  9. As someone who never graduated, but has taken coursework at a very large number of institutions (growing semesterly, it seems), this is an interesting discussion 🙂

    So far, I haven’t seen a compelling reason to give to any of the institutions I’ve been a part of. Some (such as the Chicago City Colleges) provide several compelling reasons *not* to give. Others simply failed to engage me beyond the classroom; even at institutions such as Haverford and the University of Chicago that have a strongly enforced sense of physical community fail to reproduce that same sense of community online, and beyond the classroom. The Louis August Jonas Foundation (which runs a leadership camp for youth) is a nonprofit that makes precisely the same mistake, despite having a growing number of engaged, enlightened alumni.

    I think the problem is that no one’s outlined *how* to build an engaged community in a form aimed at university / nonprofit administrators. I’ve yet to see a collective vision for an “ideal” nonprofit facebook application, for example, even as a techie. When such a document exists for non-techie decision-makers, we’ll start to see things changing. Until then, we’ll keep having the powers-that-be read this blog and tell us to set up MySpace and Facebook pages today (and then forget about it).

    We need a guide to fostering community online, a how-to for successful social networks, and we need it described in language that makes it easier to evaluate and adopt as part of a technology strategy.

    Or you guys can wait a while, and I’ll write one once I figure it out 🙂 Anyone wanna help?

  10. Moshe says:

    I disagree with the ‘Universities need to make their own social networks’ notion. I for one, would never join simply because it will never and can never beat the facebook / linkedin combo.

    That said, I think there is merit to providing value. I’d happily support an institution that could give me real value for my money. Be it through social activism, resources, programming or whatever. Don’t put out your hand unless you’ve got some goodies to dangle in the other.