“But don’t all US alumni give back to their university?”

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2013

The publication this week of the latest UK university fundraising figures gives me a timely excuse to dust down this #QTWTAIN.

There’s a common assumption that pretty much all alumni at US universities (and certainly the elite Ivy League) give back to their almae matres. British university fundraisers get used to being brow-beaten with statements along the lines, “Of course at Harvard nearly all their alumni make a donation.” It’s a good line. But it’s not true.

Here are 3 facts:

  1. In 2010, the proportion of alumni from Harvard making a donation was under 20% (19.4% to be precise);
  2. The proportion of alumni donating to Harvard fell every year between 2001 (from 27.2%) and 2010;
  3. Amongst Ivy League institutions the average alumni participation figure was 27.5%; among all higher education institutions it was 11.4%.

To be clear: I’m not knocking an 11% rate of alumni giving back. It’s a lot better than we in the UK do, as Frances Cairncross noted in the Independent this week:

In 2011-12, the mean proportion of their traceable alumni who made a gift was just over 1 per cent. At only seven UK universities did more than four per cent of alumni make a gift.

But let’s be accurate: not all alumni even at the top American universities choose to make a donation once they leave. In fact, barely more than 1-in-10 choose to do so.

If you want to see a table of the top 20 US higher education institutions (as ranked by their 2010 fundraisng income), other Ivy League institutions, and averages for comparison, click on the table below…

us alumni participation 2000-10

(My thanks to my old research colleagues at Oxford University for these figures.)


So Oxbridge is beating Columbia, much of the UC system and Michigan, and is not far shy of Johns Hopkins.

And there are one or two non-Oxbridge Russell Group universities which are neck and neck with big American public universities.

And the difference is that our participation rates are rising.

by Adrian Beney on April 24, 2013 at 10:53 am. Reply #

at the heart of the rise in participation in the UK and the fall in the States is the quality of phonathons. If UK universities continue to adopt an ‘affinity-first’ approach to calling alumni, they will win over new supporters and renew and upgrade old ones. What is likely (and is already apparent) is that institutions will chip-away at quality in the search for reduced costs. To begin with the impact will be slight. But in time, if we slip towards the ‘hi, its your university here, we take visa, mastercard and american express’ approach to calls, the same fall in participation will occur here

by John Rux-Burton on May 8, 2013 at 11:06 am. Reply #

John’s comment about the quality of phonathons has much to commend it. On the whole in the UK we have been more cautious about using the phone to ask for gifts and so more careful about the quality of calls.

But one can not safely say that the increasing alumni participation in the UK has at its heart high quality telephone fundraising. Indeed it’s over-concentration on the phone to the exclusion of other forms of solicitation, especially direct mail and email, that has resulted in many places getting stuck at around 2.5% – 3.5% participation. Outside Oxbridge, (where quality and extent of phone number data tends to be better than average), it is the places that have implemented a broader strategy based on a mixture of solicitation methods which have seen their participation rise. And Direct Mail has, in a good number of those places, produces higher median gifts per year than the phone.

That’s not to be down on telephone fundraising, far from it. But to suggest that the good telephone calling is at the heart of the rise in participation is, I suggest, painting a rather simplified picture of the actual situation.

by Adrian Beney on May 10, 2013 at 6:57 am. Reply #

It would be ridiculous to suggest that DM and email have no place and we help clients deploy both. But the reality in terms of participation is that is very unusual indeed for either to produce results in excess of 2.5%. So whilst they are both vital to help participation along, with may university campaigns producing participation rates 10 times that figure, its clear that only through phone (or seeing people of course) can participation get to the levels we desire. Its not a simplified view, its mathematics. If one looks at those place that are topping the participation charts, they are all phoning every single person they possibly can and use DM and email as a support and as a means of reaching those uncontactable by phone. These are, of course, all Oxbridge, so how successful they are has a lot to do with affinity and wealth, but it also has to do with small databases that are resourced sufficiently for enough solicitation to take place. It would be unwise to advise anyone to expend much (some, but not much) on DM and email until they have really got their phoning going on a mass scale as its impossible to justify the expenditure for the increase in participation it produces. If a DM campaign ever does better than an institutions phoning, it would be dubious to assume this demonstrates the efficacy of DM until one could be absolutely certain it wastnt simply very bad phoning that was taking place.

by John Rux-Burton on May 10, 2013 at 7:48 am. Reply #

I think the key thing to remember about the role of direct mail and email is that it helps to build donor retention – and this is an important contribution to maintaining and increasing participation. While I agree that telephone response is much higher than either email or direct mail for acquisition we see high value gifts via these channels (and better retention) – with the right message email can also engage alumni and donors in a way that telephone does not.
The future is a mix of all these channels working together rather than the traditional pure play.

by hamish stewart on May 10, 2013 at 10:27 am. Reply #

Hamish makes some very good points. It must be anticipated that DM and email will have better retention because so few respond, the people who are doing so have to be, by definition, dead keen. It is also very likely the average gift will be higher because, again, via DM and email the responders will include only those who were committed, not those who were encouraged by a call to do a ‘little something’. All those small ‘token’ gifts (to use a widely used but rather pejorative term) will bring down the average gift. However, if one takes a DM to 5000 alumni and divides the gifts by those mailed and a phone campaign to a pool of 5000 (with maybe half actually be reached) and does the same division, it rapidly becomes clear that phoning is vastly more effective.

Of course, the other aspect of this is that it is vital to make comparisons with peer institutions (which is hard right now as bench-marking in our sector is underdeveloped at this time). It is quite possible to do internal matrices and decide one solicitation method is particularly good. It may reveal a general truth about methodology or it may reveal that the institution is exceptional at delivering this method and/or woeful at another method. Sometime ago much was made of the lack of a need for a pre-call in phone campaigns. The argument was it made no difference to giving. The institutions assumed the absence of a difference in the stats revealed that pre-calls did not matter, rather than considering their pre-calls were perhaps substandard. We tested the assumption in a blind test and found pre-calls did make a significant difference and had to come to the conclusion poorly constructed pre-calls did not help, but well written ones did. The same logic applies to examine solicitation methods.

What all this reveals is that none of us should really be getting on these forums and giving opinions; opinion informers like Adrian’s (Beney and Salmon), Hamish, a number of others and I would suggest, with all modesty, myself, should be working on agreeing transparent, publicly available bench-marking which allows clarity on something that is not actually very obscure, because, unlike so much major gift and legacy work, it is so immediately measurable.

by John Rux-Burton on May 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm. Reply #

Some may not know that, together with a consortium of between 12 and 15 universities, we have carried out an in depth benchmaking project for the last three years on lower level giving. We’ve analysed every gift made by every alum for the last ten years. Last time it was 40GB of data.

A public report is due for approval by the group quite soon.

by Adrian Beney on May 17, 2013 at 8:40 am. Reply #

This is indeed an excellent initiative. It seems once this published a useful next stage would be to bring informed individuals together to gain consensus that all the right questions are being asked and enough context is being published to analyse the results properly and then seek to broaden those submitting data as widely as possible. It is probably in the best interests of everyone to press for this and for all us consultants to be very active in cooperating (or get the necessary release from clients to cooperate) as fully and openly as possible.

by John Rux-Burton on May 17, 2013 at 10:57 am. Reply #

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