Advancing Philanthropy

The Art of Communication: 5 Ways to Use Technology to Engage Young Alumni

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There is no question that alumni giving is key to the sustainability of colleges and universities. The success of the students, mission and programs at these institutions depend upon donor support. Alumni donations allow schools to offer more scholarships, upgrade campuses and facilities, enhance academic and campus involvement opportunities, and more. They also help sustain existing programs and allow schools to maintain and grow the quality of the student experience.

Although giving to U.S. higher education grew by nearly 7% in 2021, according to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), there is still much work to be done around alumni giving. In 2021, the majority of voluntary giving to higher education, nearly 77% of donations, came from foundations, non-alumni individuals, corporations and other organizations. Alumni giving accounted for less than a quarter of voluntary giving.

For colleges and universities to be sustainable, they must improve alumni engagement and giving, especially among Millennials and Gen Z. These generations currently make up more than half of the U.S. population, and they hold tremendous potential spending power and are incredibly philanthropic. A 2021 Schuler Education Foundation survey found that nearly nine out of 10 young alumni reported donating to charitable organizations. The report found young alumni want to give back when they can see how initiatives connect to the issues they care about and how gifts help current students. Engaging young alumni early and getting them into the habit of giving is vital for colleges and universities.

For many higher education institutions, engaging young alumni and encouraging them to give can be challenging. Technology can help. By utilizing technology, we can connect with and engage young alumni and create relationships that will last and grow as these younger donors progress in their careers and their lives. As someone who is working to modernize philanthropy and connect everyday donors with the causes they care about, I believe colleges and universities can use technology to engage and empower young alumni in five ways.

1. Recognize Young Alumni Throughout Their Giving Journeys with Shareable, Visual Content

Giving used to be a destination. It was something you engaged in when you sold a company or retired and wanted to consider your legacy. Today, giving is a journey. Millennials and Gen Z are not waiting to get involved in giving back to social causes. They are starting now, and they’re leading. We know that these generations care deeply about the broader social good. They already want the world to be different, so how can we encourage them? It’s important to recognize and acknowledge their donations regardless of the amount. Consider offering a handwritten thank you note, a personalized video, a certificate, or another type of recognition that is thoughtful, visual, and shareable on their social media accounts. And, thank everyday donors on social media. Recognize and celebrate participation in giving and not just the top donors. The amount of the initial gift doesn’t matter. If we get young alumni in the habit of giving $5 and focus on retaining those donors, their gifts can grow over time.

2. Provide Opportunities for Young Alumni to See and Track Their Volunteer Time, Not Just Monetary Donations

Not all young alumni will start their giving journeys with a monetary donation. Some might start by giving time to their colleges and universities, while others might utilize their social networks to spread the message about giving back. It’s important to consider ways that they can see their impacts beyond just a dollar amount.

For example, could you allow them to access a platform where they track their volunteer hours and their monetary gifts? Allowing donors to see information on their donations of time and monetary gifts in one place is helpful and encouraging. Some schools are adding programs like a Young Alumni Trustee and Young Alumni Task Forces that allow alumni to bring in their ideas and are expanding online resources for those volunteers. Seeing these contributions of time included gives a young philanthropist a better picture of their true impact.

3. Use Data for Good to Measure the Impact of Networks

When I was starting my philanthropy journey, I had more social connections to offer than money. Today, that may ring true for many young alumni who are just beginning their careers but have grown up with social media. We must think about how we can encourage alumni to engage with their networks to support alumni giving and let them know that engaging their networks is just as valuable as money. Think about the alumni who have talent to offer in that area and ways you can thank them for sharing messages about the importance of giving with their networks.

Charities are catching on to this approach. They’re engaging donors by tracking data on the impact of their networks. Charity Water, a nonprofit that provides clean drinking water to developing communities, is showing donors not only the total dollars that they have given but also the dollar amount provided by their friends and social connections when they share messages about the need to donate. This type of information can be highly motivating to a donor who wants to have an impact. Through this Lifetime Impact approach (a metric that recognizes all your contributions), Charity Water is counting gifts that donors directly provide as well as the gifts that they raised and referred through their networks. This method is more inclusive and celebrates the impacts of everyday donors that are often missed.

4. Make Giving Quick, Frictionless and Automatic

It’s easier to give regularly when we don’t have to think about making a gift, go through a lot of steps or even decide to give each time. At some schools, young alumni can use mobile payment apps, like Venmo, that they already have on their phones to support their schools with the touch of a button. Making it easy to set up automatic, recurring gifts of a small amount can be a great starting place, but smart charities and nonprofits are adding additional, frictionless giving options. Some even utilize programs that allow donors to roundup their purchases and donate the change to a cause. Roundup programs allow donors to start giving in a way that is less noticeable, and their collective gifts add up. A recent study published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that more people were willing to give when asked to round up than when asked to give a dollar. It also found that the higher percentage of giving collectively resulted in a 21% increase in the total amount donated.

Moreover, additional options for giving are expanding to areas like credit card rewards points and airline miles. Consider providing a variety of ways to give using technology that will allow for quick mobile payments, rounding up on everyday purchases, small recurring amounts, or transferring non-monetary assets like rewards points. These programs are often easier for young donors to participate in.

5. Utilize Employee-Directed Charitable Giving Programs to Allow Young Alumni to Give Through Work

Employee-directed charitable giving programs can allow more people to find your college or university giving program and connect them with ways to amplify their impacts. At Philanthropi, I work with employers who directly match and even double match their employees’ charitable gifts. These employers realize that employees want to work for companies that align with their values and allow them to have an impact on causes that are important to them as individuals. Employee giving programs are popular with employees of all ages and are especially popular with Millennials and Gen Z. According to Deloitte’s “Workplace Giving Survey,” 58% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 reported participating in workplace giving in 2020. Consider employers who might be willing to partner with your young alumni giving programs.

Meet Young Donors Where They Are

Young alumni have the potential to positively impact their colleges and universities through their time, talent, ties and treasure. As we think about how to better engage young alumni and build lasting relationships with them, we need to meet them where they are and celebrate what they have to give. It’s time to expand our definition of a donor to include all the ways people give. Their gifts might start as time or promoting a giving campaign through their social networks, but as they become involved, their opportunities to give financially will grow. Younger generations will inherit roughly $61 trillion over the next couple of decades as older Americans pass down wealth. Getting young alumni in the habit of giving early and celebrating their giving throughout their journeys can help colleges and universities unlock new groups of alumni donors who have the potential to positively impact the future of their institutions.

Keith Leaphart, D.O., MBAKeith Leaphart, D.O., MBA, is the founder and CEO of Philanthropi and board chair of the Lenfest Foundation, where he has long served as the foundation’s primary liaison to the Giving Pledge and helped lead the foundation’s work to support disadvantaged youth in Philadelphia in the areas of early learning, out-of-school care and career pathways. Philanthropi is leading the next generation of philanthropy and philanthropists through its innovative giving platform. To learn more and connect, please visit

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08 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
01 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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