Colleges hitting up alums early

Amy Scott Jun 11, 2010

Colleges hitting up alums early

Amy Scott Jun 11, 2010

If you are a college grad, chances are your alma mater has hit you up for money lately, especially as the fiscal year is wrapping up. University endowments took a huge hit in the financial crisis. Donations are down almost 12 percent from last year due to the Great Recession. One college is asking for a little coin from folks who’ve barely left campus.

By Amy Scott

At a restaurant in Manhattan, a group of young men and women meet up before heading off to work. They’re recent graduates of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. They’re here to have breakfast with the college president, Father Michael McFarland. They catch up on campus improvements: New student housing, better dorm food.

Before long, Father McFarland let’s everybody know what they’re doing here.

“As you know, we really try to get people involved to participate in giving to the college,” Father McFarland said.

From the middle of the long table, he asks these recent grads not only to give money to the school, but to call 10 of their former classmates and ask them to give too.

“Ten dollars,” he said to the audience. “Anything. A couple of Starbucks is all we’re asking for. You can switch to Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Holy Cross has been connecting with young alumni on Facebook and Twitter and by hosting these small breakfasts with the president. The newest graduates don’t have much to give. Many are saddled with student loans, working entry-level jobs, and in this group, paying New York City rents.

Joe McDonald graduated last year and landed a job as an audit assistant at an accounting firm. He plans to give something this year.

“It might not make a difference for your $25 on the surface, but if every young alumni’s giving $25, that can make a huge difference,” McDonald said. “I’m just doing the little bit that I can for right now.”

Small donations do add up. Holy Cross makes more than a million dollars every year from gifts under $250. And those small amounts can lead to bigger gifts.

“Most million dollar donors began with gifts under $100,” said John Lippincott of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. The group represents college fundraising and alumni relations staff.

He says Emory University in Atlanta believes it’s never too early to start recruiting new donors. Freshman dorms are outfitted with piggy banks for the annual fund. Tuition costs more than $37,000 a year, but students are still asked to toss in their pocket change. Lippincott says strategies like these get people in the habit of giving.

“It establishes an ongoing relationship between the university and the recent graduate,” Lippincott said. “And it reinforces for that recent graduate that indeed their small gifts are making a difference.”

And not just a financial one. Small gifts help lift what’s known as the “alumni participation rate.” It’s a factor in college rankings. Better rankings attract better students and professors, as well as other donors. But giving rates have been falling, partly thanks to the economy. Last year, just 10 percent of alumni gave to their alma maters — a record low.

Dan Allenby is a consultant and former college fundraiser. He says for one thing, students are graduating with more and more loans.

“Even in cases where they have a strong affinity for the organization, they might just be burdened by the debt that they’re carrying to pay for their tuition, and unable to support the institution,” Allenby said.

College of the Holy Cross saw its own giving rate dip last year. Though overall it’s growing and among the highest in the country. This year, the school aims to reach 53 percent participation, partly by reaching out to new graduates like Beth Alizzi. She teaches special ed and goes to grad school. Still, she gave more than $100 to Holy Cross this year.

“I’m very fortunate that I do have a nice salary that I make, and I think Holy Cross put me there,” Alizzi said. “A lot of my friends are volunteering this year, and they don’t have the means to give what I can. So I feel like it’s kind of a gift on behalf of all of us.”

The young alums at the breakfast don’t seem to mind the overt sales pitch. Audit assistant Joe McDonald was just happy to relive his college days.

“I don’t know, even walking here, taking the train uptown this morning, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be really exciting. I’ll get to talk about Holy Cross, get to meet with other young alum like myself,’ McDonald said. “It kind of brings me back to it, you know? And then I’ll go tell my friends that maybe weren’t at this breakfast, why not give a few dollars?”

Tapping into those warm, fuzzy feelings makes it easier for Holy Cross and other schools to get people to give. McDonald says he did hit up some friends after the breakfast. When I called him a few days ago, he still hadn’t made his own contribution, but he plans to.

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