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Alumni outreach can pay off for colleges

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Bismarck State College (North Dakota) hosted an alumni art show in 2009 to strengthen its connections with alumni.

With many community colleges facing stagnant or shrinking budgets, college resource development staffs are looking for new ways to connect with and raise money from alumni.

However, most community colleges haven’t defined what they mean by “alumni,” so that should be their first step toward creating an alumni giving plan, says Polly Binns, executive director of the Council for Resource Development (CRD), an organization affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Bismarck State College (BSC) in North Dakota considers any former student to be an alum, says Rita Nodland, the college’s alumni coordinator. However, the college can only gather information for its database using graduation records, she says. Former students who don’t graduate are added to the database if they request it.

Joliet Junior College (JJC) in Illinois defines alumni as those who received a degree or certificate, says Kelly Myers, assistant director of institutional advancement and alumni relations.

“But we would never exclude anyone with an affinity for the college,” she says. “Someone could have taken one class and still found this place meaningful.”

Most community and technical colleges are fairly successful at getting their proposals funded, according to a new survey of community college grant officers.

Myers wants to revamp JJC’s alumni association’s bylaws to make the group more inclusive. Membership is currently restricted to those who have given to the college in the past year.

Broward College (Florida) allows all former students to join its alumni organization free of charge, says Simone Champagnie, director of alumni relations, but those who donate to the college receive benefits, such as insurance discounts, library privileges and invitations to special events.

Finding prospective donors

Efforts to identify alumni usually start with tracking down former students’ last known address. But Binns says it’s the older alumni—who are harder to locate—who are more likely to give major gifts. She suggests starting backwards: Find people who might be willing to make a donation and see if they are alumni.

According to research conducted by CRD in 2006, about 80 percent of alumni live within an hour of the community college they attended. So when community colleges are conducting community-based giving campaigns, “they are actually raising money from alumni. They just don’t know it,” Binns says.

In a recent survey by the Council for Aid to Education, community colleges reported that 34.5 percent of contributions they received in 2010 were from individuals who are not alumni. Ann Kaplan, director of the survey, suspects that some of those donors actually are alumni who haven’t been identified as such.

The more data community colleges collect, the more contributions they are likely to receive, Kaplan says, so that means “alumni need to be identified and solicited.” She offers additional data, showing that fund raising from alumni is a “potential area of growth” for community colleges:

• Just 0.8 percent of alumni identified by community colleges have actually made a gift, compared to 9.8 percent of alumni of all higher education institutions.
• While the average gift from alumni to all colleges and universities declined about 3.3 percent from 2009 to 2010, the average gift to two-year colleges from alumni rose during that period, from $67 to just under $2,000—or about $389 if you exclude two $25,000 gifts from individuals to Clark State Community College (Ohio) and Minnesota State Community and Technical College.

Kaplan advises community colleges to pursue small donations, as well as major gifts. A pyramid model with lots of small donations making up a broad base and the largest gifts on top “offers the most stability,” she says. And, she adds, “Major gifts come from people who originally smaller gifts.” 

Judy Siggins, executive director of Broome Community College (BCC) in New York, found that to be the case. One alum who began with an annual gift of $100 25 years ago now gives $6,000 or $7,000 a year.

“You just have to be patient in this business,” Siggins says.

Building relationships

It’s important to identify alumni because they “can bring resources to community colleges beyond just dollars,” Binns says. Colleges might want to ask alumni who own local businesses to serve on curriculum or other advisory groups or sponsor apprenticeship programs for students, she suggests. Local alumni can also be mentors or tutors or help with special projects or events.

“Building relationships with alumni not only keeps them connected to our students and program, their career accomplishments reflect on the success of our college,” says Nodland of BSC, which sponsors an annual awards program for alumni and held an alumni art show in 2009.

BSC’s Alumni in the Classroom program invites alumni to speak to current students about their career experiences and the value of their degree. A new program, the Alumni Speakers List, arranges for alumni who live out of town to speak remotely to students—even kindergarteners.

“I don’t think it is ever too early to connect with students, as they may be our future alumni,” Nodland says.

The alumni affairs office at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pennsylvania uses a variety of ways to stay in touch with is large number of alumni—the college’s database has nearly 84,000 names—and strengthen former students’ connection with the college, says Nancilee Burzachechi, vice president, institutional advancement and external relations.

CCAC’s AlumNet Online Community encourages alumni to stay in touch with one another, as well as the college, Burzachecchi says. They can search for friends and classmates, update their contact information, post resumes and photos, and read the alumni newsletter.

As part of the college’s Distinguished Alumni & Friends Campaign, former students who have contributed significantly to the college, their professions and the wider community are featured on billboards and in the Pittsburgh Business Times. Alumni are regularly invited as commencement speakers, and several—including Tom Christopher, president of the Follett High Education Group, and Pittsburgh Penguins President David Morehouse—have been awarded honorary degrees.

The CCAC alumni affairs office has more than 3,500 friends on Facebook, helps alumni serve as mentors to current students and hosts events, such as CCAC Alumni Night at Major League baseball games.

Targeted marketing

JJC uses an online electronic newsletter, a survey on LinkedIn and Facebook ads to reach out to its 40,000 alumni, Myers says.
Its alumni fund-raising efforts begin with employees, who “see daily the good work we do at JJC,” Myers says. Of the college’s 500 employees, about 175 to 200 are former students, and JJC invites them to an annual reception to thank them for their ongoing support.

The college has boosted attendance at its annual alumni brunch by using the occasion to present awards to successful alumni. According to Myers, JJC had better results targeting previous donors than soliciting all alumni. A brochure sent to 5,000 alumni who had donated $500 or more in a single year yielded $43,000 by the end of 2010, while a letter to 24,000 alumni the previous year yielded only about $16,200.

Like most of the other alumni directors contacted for this article, Broward College uses social media tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to reach alumni, Champagnie says. But the college also just started using the Crib Sheet mobile phone app, developed by Cap & Compass, which can be customized by colleges to promote alumni activities.

Judy Siggins attributes BCC’s success in alumni giving to increased communications. About 5.7 percent of alumni gave to the college in 2010, compared to a national participation rate of 3 percent.

BCC sends alumni two magazines a year and invites them to various events, such as an annual open house and “alumni days” at hockey and basketball games. The college has been able to reduce its fund-raising expenses by being part of joint out-of-state reunions—and sharing the costs—with other colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

To dispel the notion often heard among alumni that “we only hear from you when you want money,” Siggins believes it’s important to keep the lines of communications open and not just ask for donations.​

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