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Building blocks for better alumni giving programs

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the February/March edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges for a long time have operated under the misguided assumption that they should not waste time or resources prospecting and cultivating their alumni in hopes of generating philanthropic support.

Community colleges are open-access institutions built to provide higher education to anyone who can benefit. The beneficiaries of this mission are largely commuter students who do not live on campus, making elements of student engagement more difficult to achieve.

How could two-year colleges possibly compete with the success of alumni giving at four-year universities—with their selective admissions criteria, residential communities, and high-profile sports teams? For those community college alumni who transfer to a four-year institution, popular belief is that they also transfer their allegiance to their university.

Given these perceptions, it is easy to understand why community college efforts to pursue alumni support lack sufficient momentum. But new research suggests the game is changing.

In a study I conducted last year as part of my doctoral research, alumni giving rates for both types of institutions were comparable (around 15 percent) and the predictors of giving were similar. Alumni donors—whether they graduated from a two-year or four-year institution—are older and wealthier, and generally say they had positive student experiences at their alma mater.

What’s more, alumni who gave to their four-year alma mater were predictors of giving to their two-year alma mater, dispelling the belief that transfer students transfer their allegiance—and their money—to their university.

An untapped potential

The findings suggest community college alumni are the largest untapped resource available to our institutions. In order to capitalize on this rich pool of prospective donors, community colleges must build programs to identify, support and engage alumni, thereby turning former students into alumni donors.

Based on their unique experience as students, alumni understand firsthand the work of our institutions and manifest our unique mission in a very personal way. This preexisting relationship with the institution means community colleges can easily translate current fundraising programs to their alumni.

Our research suggests that a successful alumni fundraising programincludes six key building blocks:

  • institutional support
  • socialization of students to become alumni donors
  • accurate alumni contact information
  • ongoing communication with alumni
  • opportunities for alumni to engage
  • ask

The experiences of two-year colleges that have inspired alumni support show how research on alumni giving at four-year institutions can be adapted to the needs of our alumni and our institutions. And community colleges that incorporate these building blocks are meeting with success.

Develop new donors through former students who had positive experiences on their campus. With a unique affinity for their alma mater, two-year college alumni understand the transformative nature of these institutions.

Campus leaders—including students, administrators and trustees—can create an environment where alumni and alumni programs exist and flourish. In return for building connections and building community, alumni have the opportunity to engage and support their alma mater through their gifts of money and time. All we need to do is ask.

Skari is vice president for institutional advancement at Highline Community College (Washington). Ullman is an education writer.