How higher ed thrives in the next generation of giving

How higher ed thrives in the next generation of giving

By Jenny Jones on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Advancement success requires a combination of new mindsets, techniques, and technology.

While many alumni think rising tuition and fees cover the cost to keep an institution running, it's just not true. Leaders at institutions know it takes many more dollars to invest in the scholarships, research, and innovation that make institutions and their students successful. Nowadays, institutions of higher education, regardless of size and funding level, or public or private status, need to up their advancements efforts and come to terms with the challenges, changes, and opportunities created by the next generation of giving.

Amid tremendous shifts in student and alumni demographics, the ways people give, and the ways people think about giving, there are numerous opportunities for higher education advancement to adapt, evolve, and outperform.

Here are three of the biggest challenges facing leaders in higher education fundraising today and some advice on how to address them, and how constituent relationship management (CRM) technology can help:

1. Retaining donors

Perhaps the most serious ongoing challenge in advancement shops across the globe is retaining donors. As one study found: for every 100 donors gained, 99 were lost through attrition.

Think of all the work it takes to bring in new donors – prospect research, meetings, endless calls and emails. Finally, someone makes a gift, and the work stops!

It shouldn’t, and that’s when the challenge starts for institutions that don’t have deep data on their donors. Where and how did that individual give, and why? Were they asked by a volunteer? Did the gift come in via a social media post or online campaign? Was it a reunion or homecoming gift?

What motivated that person to give and how can your institution nurture that relationship to inspire continued giving?

Realistically, not all donors can be retained. But losing 99 out of 100? The ROI for all of the time and attention to gain donors goes out the window if they can’t be retained. So how do schools do better?

Change the way you think about connecting with prospects and donors, and trust that the process of keeping relationships "warm" with prospects, alumni, and donors works. Ask prospects and donors how decisions to give are made in their household, ask what they would like to be contacted about. Sometimes the truth will be apparent from the first encounter, other times it takes building a relationship and learning who your prospects are as people – their values, vision, concerns, philanthropic interests – before you can match their passions with opportunities at your institution. Listen for what drives the decisions regarding giving.

A modern CRM facilitates this shift in how you connect with and retain current and potential donors, enabling an institution to record, analyze, and share data that will assist in communicating with and understanding their constituents. Having the ability to access data from multiple systems across campus, as well as from external sources (like HEPdata and WealthEngine) is an absolute game changer.

2. Engaging young alumni

The future of higher ed depends on millennial giving, but it will take years of relationship nurturing to turn them into the strongest donor generation ever. How is your institution engaging young alumni now?

A 2017 study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed 81% of the institutions surveyed said they solicit graduates within a year of graduation. Institutions ask for money, but what do they offer? Is there relevant CRM data informing each message that goes out to each constituent, with speedy reporting on what’s working and what’s not for each constituent?

Most younger generations consider a gift an investment. Giving to an unrestricted fund has no appeal to them. Younger donors tend not to be attracted to institutions that conduct large fundraising campaigns as they perceive a big gap between making a gift and seeing results.

Millennials want to volunteer, receive insider knowledge, and see from day one the impact of their gift. Figure out ways to engage younger generations with your institution that have nothing to do with giving money and everything to do with working to support a cause. With the right training, younger generations can serve as volunteers and advocates and become a valuable part of the prospect pipeline.

Volunteer work and the personalized communications that resonate with young alumni come valuable interactions and, more importantly, valuable engagement data. This data becomes the breadcrumbs that lead you to the passions that make your alumni take action. CRM software is the most efficient way to command—or even see in the first place—breakthrough data analytics on your constituents, helping you see what really works, so you can chart their path as they develop as donors and passionate supporters of your institution.

3. Overcoming skepticism

In this age of "fake news" and questions about the value of higher education, it is essential to communicate transparency about how a gift is utilized.

One of the best ways to overcome skepticism is to show your constituents that you know them, that you listen to them, and that you can be honest and thoughtful when you ask them for something.

Website content, social media posts, and emails should contain trustworthy information from reliable databases. Technology provides the platform for communication and information but it’s the strategy of how to use the technology that so many institutions forget about. A modern CRM helps advancement teams keep track of all this information—saving time and resources within an advancement team, but also streamlining collaborations with marketing and communications efforts.

Build a strategy to connect with donors based on their needs and passions, and how they like to be communicated with. Use information from alumni and donor surveys, national surveys, and focus groups to build a winning strategy individualized for your institution.

And here’s a major change every advancement team needs to test: not every message should ask for money. Celebrate achievements, deliver news that's relevant to recipients, show off the recent events that brought out the positive passions of attendees. Communicate more with transparency and accuracy, in ways that show you know the individuals you're communicating to, in ways that appreciate and inspire the passions of alumni.

The modern CRM helps campus leaders easily see the big picture

If your advancement office is powered by CRM, it’s easy to see how tracking data and engagements, even from non-giving interactions, leads to stronger strategy and stronger giving from more engaged alumni.

CRM dashboards were built for leaders who just want the facts at the click of a mouse. Click and see how you are progressing toward annual or campaign goals and then drill down to individual prospect records. Check the status of event registrations and learn if VIPs will be attending. Take a quick peek at personal engagement or fundraising goals and see where you need to spend your time during the upcoming week. This kind of drill-down used to take hours and days—now it takes seconds and minutes.

But how exactly does an institution begin to reap the benefits? Institutions just need to plan which constituent groups they want to target and why, and they need to make sure they have access to meaningful data.

When your data becomes personalized and targeted, so should your messaging. And this is where innovations in CRM meet innovations in communication techniques: when creating communications, it’s time to be personal—to show your constituents that you know them, and that if you ask them for anything (time, talent, or funds), it will count toward something meaningful to them.

Over time, with the right strategy and techniques in place, the value of giving to an institution becomes more obvious to more people. Among all the shifts described above, that may be the most important.

For more insights on how to tackle the challenges facing higher education fundraising, check out our other recent Advancement blogs and insights content.

To learn more about how CRM solutions can help you meet your advancement goals, visit

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About the Author

Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones

Management Consultant, Principal, Ellucian

Jenny Jones joined Ellucian from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, where she served as the executive director for Alumni Affairs.