Last July, my unit here within University Advancement at U.Va. acquired oversight responsibilities for the Annual Giving program. We are now the “Alumni & Parent Engagement and Annual Giving” team. So I was thrilled to read Andy Shaindlin’s thoughtful piece called, “The Future (Part 1): Fundraising’s Relationship to Alumni Relations,” because we also believe that the audience is the same and the goal for both programs is to increase participation.

Is Giving is Just Another Way to Engage?

Is Giving is Just Another Way to Engage?

But my opinion differs slightly in that I believe that through “friendraising,” – an interaction with an alumnus or group of alumni void of fundraising specific communication (at least on the surface) – we can help alumni develop personal and professional relationships within the alumni network and broader university community. Those relationships can generate a sense of belonging along with tangible evidence of the network’s value in the form of a new job or future business partner.

Providing evidence of that value must come first before infusing annual giving messages because we cannot assume that what connects people back to the university is passion for the institution and its ideals. We must earn gifts by providing services as if the relationship between the school and alumnus started new again on graduation day.

Below are three additional considerations based on Andy’s notion that “passion drives support,” and that the focus should be on “our cause, not our activities.” I believe that there’s more to driving support than passion for our cause. Our alumni network activities particularly help generate the connections necessary to accommodate all engagement motivations – a crucial precursor to infusing annual giving with engagement.

1) If alumni aren’t engaged maybe it’s because the message being conveyed and activities being offered with which to engage are all about the University’s needs, not the needs of alumni.

The day a student collects their diploma and tosses that cap in the air, the financial obligation between student and university is over. From that day forward, all gifts of time or treasure must be earned. I believe this with all my heart.

I love my alma mater, the University of Richmond, and enjoyed the entirety of my college experience. But until recently I didn’t feel it had additionally earned the small gifts of time and treasure I’ve given over the last few years. Now they are working hard to help develop me as a person and as a professional with their alumni engagement programming.

This is why proving the value of the alumni network is so important. Networking and continued learning is how people grow. It’s why we help throw over 1,200 UVA Global Network events around the world for our alumni to make connections and grow as people. We are trying to make stronger alumni. I believe that our alumni want to be engaged, not disengaged or strangers, but for the ones that aren’t involved, maybe it’s because they only hear what we need or want from them. We must support our alumni as they move forward in life rather than always asking them to look back or travel back.

2) Once “Friendraising” is happening at a high level, then it’s time to infuse annual giving as another way to participate within the alumni network.

I think it’s important to consider first whether an institution’s engagement program is robust enough to infuse annual giving messages into all event invitations, website content, registration forms, social media and interactions with volunteers. Constituents that have already been “friendraised” are much more likely to have felt that their engagement motivations are properly understood and will therefore respond more positively as annual giving messages are added in places they hadn’t been before. So my belief is that before an advancement shop turns its attention towards integrating annual giving and engagement it should focus first on getting more people out to events, creating digital engagement constructs that can be measured, and foster the growth of an excellent volunteer management program.

3) For the “School Color Bleeders,” passion about university initiatives does drive support

Our alumni who volunteer as Cavalier Admissions Volunteers would probably bleed Wahoo orange and blue. That’s because they care deeply about their experience here at U.Va. and want to maintain that high quality for generations to come. “School Color Bleeders” don’t care whether they are noticed for anything other than their love for U.Va. – “Go ‘Hoos Go!”

But now let’s say that an alumnus is 27 years old and struggling to find a great job. He doesn’t associate his college degree with professional success…yet. However, this alumnus is also the President of his local UVaClub. Why? The reason is that this particular alumnus wants to be noticed. He wants to make friends and maybe a future colleague by helping to facilitate a networking group. He’s in it for himself and for his future. He’s a great volunteer. The university flag is a backdrop; a conversation starter during the act of networking. A university’s alumni network is the easiest network for an individual to meet new people and grow relationships.

His professional success will propel him to give a gift to the annual fund. We earned it. He earned it.

Finally, I totally agree with Andy that the futures of engagement and annual giving are intertwined. But I believe universities must think about the needs of alumni before their own, and yes, I think they should “friendraise” first. After all, aren’t we all more likely to give money to our friends?

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia and Co-Host of “Advancement Live.” You can follow him on twitter @RyanCatherwood and connect on Linkedin.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


Ryan Catherwood

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  • Andy Shaindlin

    Nice discussion, Ryan. Glad that my article generated additional discussion (would be great if you leave a link to this post in the comments on my original article!). I agree with much of what you say. Where I differ is in these specifics:

    1) Your argument is for a more linear path that puts non-fundraising engagement first, and fundraising engagement later in the sequence. This is logical. My point is that while you can’t expect fundraising success to come from leading with solicitation, you can be more assertive about asking than most traditional advancement operations are. Put another way, it’s worth the effort to inject the “giving” discussion into the discussion earlier than we historically have done.

    My comments are more about our separate managerial structures (silos) within Advancement, not really about the message sequence itself. Donors will read our exchange and say, “What? I only hear from you when you want money! You asked me for a donation when I was still a student!”

    2) Related to this is your final point, which is that we’re more likely to give to our friends. Yes. But only if they ask us to give.

    3) Neither of our viewpoints, or anything in between, can be adequately assessed until we have done the hard work of looking at longitudinal data that compares outcomes from different approaches. Even then, however, the results won’t be clear, because comparing your alma mater to mine, or your employer to mine, will not truly account for the variables like culture, history, starting conditions, degree of existing engagement, resources, etc.

    4) Finally, your point about “school color bleeders” is good, but they represent a very tiny fraction of the alumni population at most institutions. We need to figure out how to address the alumni who are not automatically disposed toward support for our needs.

    Bottom line, you and I agree about the long-term importance and value of broad, relevant support for alumni across many aspects of their lives. If we’re not helping them solve problems and meet needs, we are not relevant (and in their eyes, not worthy of further investment).

    Great commentary! Thanks.

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