Michael Ellison (@cinsight_edu) is president of Alumni Monitor.
With pressure mounting on institutions to increase alumni participation rates, many universities are struggling to reach donation goals.
An article published in February 2016 in Quartz reports that alumni giving rates have decreased at schools across the U.S. due to more philanthropic options and outdated solicitation efforts. In fact, the article states that alumni donation levels have hit a new low in the last two decades; as an example, only 33 percent of Yale University graduates donated to their alma mater last year compared to 50 percent two decades ago. Additionally, graduates are less likely to donate to elite schools with large endowments when other nonprofits or Kickstarter campaigns are seeking support; donors have more choices than ever before for where to put their dollars. The article cites a 2014 report by Dan Allenby of the Annual Giving Network that suggests that solicitation efforts with a “giving back” focus are outdated. Rather, schools should emphasize volunteerism and social networking over traditional alumni messaging.
To shift the focus from fundraising, schools should encourage alumni to volunteer their time and resources to make meaningful contributions. Here are five opportunities for alumni to give their time.
- Interviewing applicants. Alumni can help shape incoming classes through the admissions process. Several colleges offer alumni the opportunity to interview prospective students during their application process. Of the more than 50 schools nationwide that Alumni Monitor (a research service) tracks, 19 advertise these interview opportunities within their alumni association websites, and volunteers can sign up using an online form or by emailing a university representative directly. At Brown University, for instance, alumni can volunteer for the university’s Alumni Interviewing Program. From a dashboard within the private alumni community, participants can manage all applicant interviews, review candidates and submit opinions based on their interviews.
- Representing the school at a college fair. College fairs can provide alumni representatives the opportunity to answer student and parent questions and share their personal experiences. Most schools require alumni to fill out an online form to volunteer. Within the Alumni Monitor coverage group, 22 schools offer alumni information about representing their schools and recruiting prospective students through college fairs.
- Becoming a social media ambassador. Many schools are beginning to offer opportunities for participants to become social media ambassadors. Some institutions use a rewards program (including Boston University, Rutgers University and the University of Virginia) to work with social media ambassadors. After joining the program using Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, social media ambassadors earn points for sharing official school content and generating retweets or shared links (among other activities, such as using specified hashtags and following a sponsor on social networks). At the end of the program, which usually runs for about a month, ambassadors who meet point cutoffs are entered to win prizes, such as gift cards to the university store.Social media ambassadors encourage connections among alumni and alumni-to-alma-mater interactions outside of traditional email and phone solicitation. For example, Rutgers’s Scarlet Voice ambassadors promoted the university’s first Giving Day by sharing videos and posts using the hashtag #RUGivingDay. Ambassadors can also help draw the attention of prospective donors who may ignore official university communications but are more likely to engage with content posted by friends and former classmates.
- Participating in a mentor program. A mentorship or career development program provides current student and alumni an opportunity to network and interact with one another. For students, mentor programs offer career and development advice from alumni volunteers; for alumni, these programs offer the ability to give back and help students with career decisions and life advice. Twenty-two schools within the Alumni Monitor coverage group, promote a mentor program within their alumni association websites.Specifically, Ithaca College’s IC Mentoring Program consists of two platforms: IC Mentoring Network and
IC Mentor Connect. The program allows members of the university community to connect with one another through mentoring, advising, coaching and career development events. The IC Mentoring Network is an online forum within LinkedIn for users to hold group discussions while IC Mentor Connect is a separate forum for alumni and students to develop a one-on-one mentor/mentee relationship.
- Serving in a leadership role. All members of the Alumni Monitor coverage group offer their alumni a range of leadership roles. In addition to volunteering for an alumni society, regional group or affiliated chapter, alumni can also help plan myriad events. Individuals may serve on the alumni association’s board of directors or alumni council. This volunteer opportunity, however, requires a significant time commitment and, depending on the role, an alumnus or alumna must be nominated or elected.
What these examples show is that alumni associations are already offering a range of volunteer opportunities to their alumni, but there’s potential for more. Alumni involvement at an alma mater extends upon giving money and volunteerism unlocks engagement and participation from alumni of all ages. We see rewards programs becoming a popular online volunteer opportunity and supplementing the traditional volunteer efforts available to alumni.