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From Prospective Student to Active Alumni: Engagement Fosters Lifelong Support

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As a higher ed professional, you know an engaged student is a retained student. But what impact can engaged students have on your recruitment and retention efforts after they graduate?

Alumni aren't just another revenue stream. They're a network of supporters who want to see your institution thrive and can serve as one of your most effective student engagement tools. Below are tips, based on my personal experience, on growing your students into active alumni who play an integral part in your institution's success.

Start Early and Never Stop Engaging

When you hear the name of your alma mater, what feelings bubble up? What keeps you engaged?

In our family, my husband, daughter and I all have three very different perspectives.

1. Engaged Current Student and Future Alumni Supporter

My daughter gets very excited when she hears talk about the university she's attending. That's because her university has done a great job of engaging her while she's still a student. After graduation next year, she plans on financially supporting and staying connected to her alma mater. She will be one of the 26% of donors who were students or graduating seniors.1

Why? My daughter's school has engaged her from day one using technology and face-to-face interactions. As she toured the campus, she could feel the connection students had to the institution and each other. Her university highlighted the ways she could connect with other commuter students and even alumni via social media, in—person events, and university e-newsletters.

The university has kept my daughter engaged as life has changed. Last summer, she switched from commuting to living on campus, and the school was there to help welcome her to the student housing, show her all the student resources, and involve her in campus life. She gets social media messages informing her about new resources or if anything fun is happening at her residence or on campus.

Faculty engage her both inside and outside the classroom by providing feedback on assignments, encouraging her to step outside her comfort zone to acquire new skills, recommending extracurricular activities, and checking in on the progress she's making toward her goals. This makes her feel that she has a team behind her, collaborating for her success.

Current alumni have been key to keeping her engaged. They often visit her classes to talk about their careers and ways to connect if students have questions. Another key to her alumni engagement happened when she was hired for a term as a student fundraiser, where she called alumni and chatted about her major and her school experience—and softly asked for donations. She could see the impact of alumni support and could help get alumni (and herself and her friends) excited about it, too. She also sees a way to contribute now. Current students are invited to visit and recruit at local high schools as brand ambassadors, sharing their meaningful experiences. This gives her the opportunity to tell her story of how her school has already impacted her life.

2. Engaged Student and Alumni Turned Nonsupporter

My husband used to be very engaged with his university. He'd also get very excited when he heard talk of his alma mater—but he doesn't anymore.

Why? His university connected with him regularly when he was a student. He attended various alumni lectures and could see the impact that donors made at the university. He met with alumni and couldn't wait until he graduated and could support the university too. And he did support them financially, but that didn't last very long.

What changed? His excitement and financial support dwindled over the years because he only hears from his old university when they want a donation. He started feeling like an ATM instead of a valued alumnus. They didn't continue to engage him after he graduated. If they had continued to engage him, he would have continued giving—just like the 80% of alumni that have remained connected to their school still give.2

Learn tactics for keeping and reengaging young alumni [https://highereducation.blackbaud.com/advancement-persona/tactics-to-keeping-and-reengaging-young-alumni-2].

3. Unengaged Student and Alumni

I attended four schools between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. None of them did anything to engage me until after graduation—I received one survey and numerous appeals for donations. Don't get me wrong. I had some great teachers, but I never felt an emotional connection to the schools. I'm one of the 82% of alumni who isn't emotionally connected to my alma mater.3

The result? I've never felt compelled to support or donate to any of my alma maters. Supporting philanthropic organizations, whether I'm donating my time or money, is very important to me. I regularly volunteer for or donate to quite a few other organizations who have engaged me and kept me engaged. I just don't feel the connection with my alma maters that I feel with other organizations.

So, Is It Too Late to Engage Unengaged Alumni?

My friend Martha had a situation similar to mine. Martha's alma mater didn't engage her during school or after graduation. But years later, they righted their wrongs. It took a lot more work to reengage her than keeping her engaged would have, but Martha's now an active alumni and sustaining donor. What was the turning point? During an alumni phonathon, a student phoned Martha and thanked her for being an alumnus. The student engaged Martha in a conversation about their majors, which turned out to be very similar. They talked about how the school had changed since my friend had graduated and how the school had impacted Martha's life. At the end of the conversation, the student gently asked if Martha would consider donating. Martha did, and the student sent Martha a personalized thank-you note.

Does engagement end with a donation? No, if her alma mater had ended there, Martha's giving would have dried up and she wouldn't have gone on to be a regular attendee at alumni reunions, a guest speaker in classes, or an advocate for her university. But her alma mater didn't end there. They started sending Martha an e-newsletter customized to her major and her area of financial support. They send her a monthly print magazine, and a regular publication that focuses on school alumni who have been published, recorded (music), and exhibited. They engage with Martha on Facebook and on Instagram (she follows them, and her alma mater follows her too) and they keep her informed of upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. They send Martha monthly statements for her sustaining gifts and involvement, little gifts in the school colors (a pin and a scarf), and letters that say thank you and show Martha the impact of her donation and participation. Martha will be an active alumni and donor until the day she dies, and I bet that student she talked to will be more motivated to support the school too.

My family's and friend's experiences echo those of so many people we've talked with, surveyed, and listened to through social media, our various Blackbaud University classes, and of course in the Blackbaud community. If any of my alma maters connected with me like Martha's did, I would support them. But that isn't the lesson here. The key takeaway is that If you connect with students from the beginning and continue to engage them after graduation, you will optimize admissions and recruiting across the country and increase financial and alumni support.

But how can you best engage students and alumni using technology [https://npengage.com/nonprofit-fundraising/fundraising-at-the-speed-of-life/] and face-to-face engagement (with limited staffing and budget)? How do you encourage alumni giving without treating them like ATMs? Do a favor for your students, alumni, and staff and start building that emotional connection today—and keep building it through targeted engagement strategies.

With Blackbaud's education management solutions, manage the complete student life cycle—from admissions to alumni management. Visit Blackbaud or contact us to get started.


  1. Blackbaud, 2017 donorCentrics Annual Report on Higher Education Alumni Giving: Summary of Annual Giving Key Performance Indicators, 2017.
  2. Penelope Burk, Burk Donor Survey: Where Philanthropy Is Headed in 2016 (Chicago: Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., August 2016).
  3. Blake Lohnes and Nader Nekvasil, "Alumni Attachment, Giving Linked to Undergraduate Experience," Gallup (blog), September 1, 2016.

Melissa Rancour is Principal Instructional Designer at Blackbaud.

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