The joy of giving, the impact of alignment

Your alumni are a tough group to characterize, let alone reach. They range in age from 21 to 101. They live all over the country, and the world, and work in (or have retired from) a wide range of professions. Some are wealthy, some not. They are as diverse as your institution.

It’s a varied tribe, but its members have three important things in common:

1. Their alma mater
Your alumni share the experience, the memories, and the connections that result from their time together at a pivotal phase in their lives. For some, that experience may not have been great. But for most there is (hopefully) the recognition of shared values and the pride of association with an institution that is a positive force for change in the world. Many of your alums feel gratitude for the opportunities the school provided, even if they were not recipients of financial aid or scholarships. Your challenge (and ours) is to harness that gratitude by demonstrating the impact of alumni support.

2. Their desire to change lives for the better
For the majority of your alumni who have the capacity to give, there is an innate inclination to contribute to the well being of others. But they want to do so in a way that allows them to see the results of their gifts in concrete ways. Abstractions and vagueness about the need for support will send potential donors searching for a more reliable way to leverage their philanthropic dollars. 

3. The pleasure they derive from giving
Giving feels good when the giver feels a real connection to the recipient or to the effort being funded. Strong connections are established when there is alignment (some kind of common experience) and evidence that the promise of change is fulfilled. Because my daughter teaches in a high-poverty elementary school I relate to the challenges faced by her students, and I respond to appeals from an organization that supports teacher projects. It feels good to give, and it feels really good when I later receive photographs documenting the results of the project I supported.

These three feelings shared by your alumni — pride, desire, and pleasure — form the foundation for a successful development effort. Your communications should convey the strength of the institution — its history, mission, leadership, vision, and momentum. Your priorities must be clearly defined and grow out of a compelling strategic plan. You must explain the urgency of the effort — why, at this moment, the institution can’t simply tread water. Look for alignment, and use first-person voices to tell stories of adversities overcome and lives changed. Follow up with evidence that demonstrates the impact of alumni support.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Goodness is the only investment that never fails." Pay attention to the feelings of your alumni audience, and make sure your communications work hard to bring out the goodness.