Get them to give generously

Malcolm Gillies on how to encourage alumni donations

June 6, 2013

We in universities look to our alumni as never before. Those charges whom we like to think we nurtured and nourished through to graduation are now asked for lifelong returns on the favour. We look to them post- graduation to nourish our institutions throughout their careers and retirement, and even after death through their wills. Few educational institutions can afford to lose contact with their alumni these days.

In his 2010 blueprint Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, Lord Browne of Madingley sketched a model that went beyond the repayment of loans. The stages of student financing were “learning and living” (the provision of tuition and/or maintenance loans), “paying back” via the tax system and lastly, “giving”. Giving was about “providing an easy way for graduates to make voluntary tax-deductible payments to their chosen institution”.

Browne envisaged that the same tax mechanism developed for loan repayments could then foster voluntary giving. After completing their repayments, alumni could continue paying in the same way to the institution of their choice.

Mixing friend-making and fundraising must not become so intertwined that a genuine respect for alumni well-being seems just a front for yet another giving campaign

Now, what has happened with this huge shift from government-as-granter to government-as-lender is that alumni are becoming the key stakeholders in our universities. Not only does the viability of the funding system depend upon their regular repayments over the decades but these very same people are also on the front line of future giving. They are truly, sometimes uncomfortably, “at the heart of the system”.

The effect of this shift is profound. My 2011 Higher Education Policy Institute study, University Governance: Questions for a New Era, recognised the emerging role of alumni as holders of the major (often majority) funding stake in their institutions. The consequences for governance are substantial. Whereas once we considered the institution to be “publicly funded” and responsible to employers or professions, the emerging stake of the alumni now trumps all. Their ascendant role in institutional governance is clear and justified.

The alumni of tomorrow will become happier repayers, voluntary givers or institutional governors if they see real value and benefit in the student experience today. The experience across the Atlantic in a more overtly philanthropic culture shows, however, that you need to make friends early and repeatedly if they are to become substantial funders later on. Equally, mixing friend-making and fundraising must not become so intertwined that a genuine respect for alumni well-being seems just a front for yet another giving campaign.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear from one of the dozen universities at which I’ve either studied or worked over the past 40 years. The persistence, but also the growing range of alumni services and opportunities, is really quite impressive.

Back in the 1980s it seemed hard even to reach the annual mailing list of “graduates” (as we were then mostly called). A couple of institutions even had annual, or life, subscriptions to deter the less intrepid institutional admirers. Higher education was often considered something of a public service, a bit like the local electricity supply, and giving seemed rather pointless if all you were doing was letting state funders off the hook.

How times have changed. Not only these dozen institutions but also their individual faculties, interest groups and residential colleges are back in contact. My 16 changes of address over three continents count for naught in the age of systematic, 24/7 “data mining”. Only one of my alma maters has failed to track me down and I keenly await its future contact. But who knows? Perhaps it is deliberately ignoring me.

The forms of alumni contact are inventive. Beyond the normal annual events, appeals and reviews, there are opportunities to name a building, fund an aircraft or adopt a student or animal. There are local or virtual networking opportunities for alumni of my age group (or not), free concerts, study trips to Mongolia with Professor Snodgrass, guided tours of the university’s vineyards and opportunities to join the President’s Circle.

When I lived in Australia I knew that a phone call at 3am was most probably from a late-adolescent undergraduate at one of the British universities I had attended wanting to tell me about their great learning experience and ending up with a not-so-subtle reminder of my obligation to give. Unfortunately, most only gained a swift, but useful, lesson about time zones.

Those alumni events I most enjoy - and attend - involve inspirational speakers. Universities are ultimately about ideas and they remain our best advertisement. While boozy get- togethers or self-congratulatory league table-ridden talks from a vice-chancellor are sometimes welcome, I like it when leading alumni share their wisdom on popular topics or engage in structured debate. This illustrates both the study foundations in which their knowledge is rooted and also how they have gone on to play a role in the world, especially beyond academia.

I recall hosting an alumni event in New York in 2007 at which the global chief economist at Lehman Brothers, a PhD from the Australian National University, talked about economic trends for the coming year. It sticks in my mind as it was a brilliant, immensely accessible talk, and most of his predictions were right. In retrospect, of course, he did miss out one highlight of 2008: the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

We look to our alumni as never before. If we expect them to repay, give, give again, endow and finally bequeath, then we need to demonstrate the value of their education more than ever.

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