Asking Alumni for Advice

Posted on 02/01/2017

There’s an old adage in fundraising that goes like this: If you ask someone for money, they’ll probably respond with advice. But, if you ask for advice, don’t be surprised if they end up giving you money.

If you work in advancement, then you’ve heard it before: The only time I hear from my alma mater is when they need money! While it’s easy to see how some alumni could feel this way, the truth is that soliciting donations is an important responsibility of any advancement program. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not asking enough.

The most successful programs certainly aren’t shy about asking. They appeal to alumni for donations on a regular (sometimes monthly!) basis, and they don’t necessarily stop asking after someone makes a gift. Many will follow up with a second appeal shortly after. Research shows that the more frequently a donor is asked – and subsequently gives – the more likely they will be to give again in the future. But don’t confuse this to mean that institutions should only ask for money.

Stanford University’s annual giving team knows that engaging alumni and donors involves more than just gift solicitations, which is why they created a mail piece that specifically asks alumni for their advice. With a headline that reads, “Whether you graduated five or 55 years ago (who’s counting?), you probably have some very useful advice for today’s undergraduates,” the piece includes a reply card so alumni can respond with their opinions about the best place to study on campus, whether or not “fountain hopping” is a good idea, and other suggestions that might be helpful to current students.

The mailing, which was sent in early May, was done as a test alongside a “bio update” mailing that is typically sent around the same time each year. The goal was to mimic the experience of filling something out and sending a gift. An email, which included a link to a digital survey, was sent a few weeks later as a follow-up to the print mail piece. Although it was not intended to come across as a gift solicitation, the mailing did include a subtle plug for financial support at the bottom of the page. See below for an example of the printed piece.

Good engagement and fundraising strategies involve a lot of asking. But don’t be too narrow in what you’re asking for. Gifts come in many sizes – time, talent and treasure. When a donor is willing to give any one of these things, it’s important to take notice. And when you find someone who cares enough about the institution to give all three, then you’ve found something that’s not only rare but truly special.


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