What Makes Alumni Tick?

August 4, 2020

Donations may be down, but strong messaging and emotional appeal can help increase likelihood to donate.

By Colleen McCauley, Max Ober and Samantha Lyons

Alumni donations are a huge part of revenue for any college or university, but do colleges and universities really know why their alumni are donating? Do they know what drives alumni support? More to the point, do they know how to convince alumni to donate?

Alumni donate when their income is largest and when institutions make it easy. (1) For the next decade, millennials will be entering their prime income earning years. This presents an enormous opportunity for higher education institutions to continue to establish a network of donors and maintain a pipeline of consistent funding.

Maximizing donation dollars is not always easy – it depends on understanding alumni giving behaviors and what messages can effectively drive action.

PSB’s recent poll on alumni behavior shows that the decision to donate to one’s higher education institution is driven by two factors: 1) basic human desires to do what is right, and 2) personal emotional benefits.

“I am grateful for my experiences,” is the top reason to donate, while “It is the right thing to do,” “I want to give back,” are the next top reasons.

What does this mean for institutions? When targeting alumni support, make sure the outreach strategy and messaging is designed to elicit thoughts and feelings related to doing what is right and feeling good about oneself.

Positive reinforcement can also help improve chances alumni donate again in the future. The premise of a simple thank you reinforces the positive emotional benefits alumni receive when they donate.

The top ways to be thanked for a donation are a note on how the money is being used, a personal thank you card, and a small gift such as a t-shirt or coffee mug – all simple thank you ideas that can go a long way to boost personal emotional benefits and drive donations among alumni.

Soliciting donations is also about striking down the barriers for those who have not previously donated to their alma mater. PSB’s poll identifies three key barriers to donating that present strong opportunities for messaging and communication tactics that will positively influence opinions and behavior.

Among those who did not donate to their higher education institution, 31% prefer to spend money on other things, 23% think other causes are more worthy of their money, and 19% do not feel a strong enough connection to their school to donate.

Institutions have the opportunity to use persuasive outreach campaigns centered around basic human desires to do what is right and personal emotional benefits in order to help alumni overcome donation barriers. For example, although alumni may prefer to spend their money on other things, messaging can help justify why a donation to their alma mater is the right thing to do.

There is no one cookie cutter message or outreach strategy that works for every college or university. Messaging and outreach should be tailored to institutions and tailored to different types of alumni within an organization. Building on these core drivers for a comprehensive outreach and communications strategy requires direct research into nuances of specific alumni and unique institution differences.

For more information on how PSB can help your organization, contact Colleen McCauley at [email protected] and Max Ober [email protected]

PSB conducted three waves of online surveys among N=1,000 Americans. In the survey, we asked Americans about their college/university attendance and their donation behavior to their alma mater.

Polling was conducted between January 8th, 2020 and January 13th, 2020. Results of all three waves of polling were reported in aggregate.



Back to News