Sunday, April 26, 2015

Does your senior gift program actually cost you donors?

We all know the pressure to increase participation.  I will address that further in the upcoming weeks but recently spent several days in St. Louis with folks from several other Catholic Universities comparing programs and data through the Target Analytics program and had an interesting related conversation.

Among the more in depth discussions surrounded senior class gift programs and the potential value of those programs.  While most of the schools present had a program, and we all assumed that a senior class gift program would lead to an increase in the number of donors from that class down the line, the reality was that there was no such impact.  It did provide an increase in number of donors but typically they were low level additions from a financial standpoint so the one or two year increase in donor count matters when the program is started but then creates a need to keep running that program to maintain donor counts and is terrifically difficult to grow beyond a certain point.

So does a typical senior class gift program help?  Or does it hurt?  Clearly teaching the students about giving to your organization makes sense.  But are you are teaching them to give in a way that is sustainable?  Many organizations clearly are not.  Focus on specific projects or plans is great for getting them to give but unless you want to move into having a project per year per class that isn't really what you do most of the time.

We also spend a ton of effort on each of them to get them to make that gift.  If you are one of the lucky programs with the resources to create a class based fundraising effort, maybe this makes sense. Otherwise, you are teaching them different behavior from any other activity that you are going to undertake with these alumni.  Are you training them wrong?

What seems to be happening is the higher the investment in the senior gift program, the greater the disappointment with the ensuing years.  Communications, stewardship and attention all drastically decline 1 year after the senior program such that you end up with a declining participation rate year after year.  Conversely, investing those resources in a strong young alumni program that starts with students but is centered around engaging the constituents builds up the number of donors year over year creating lifetime donors rather than single program driven donors.

It takes patience and investment to make this happen but what would you rather have; 400 donors one time who renew at lower than a 3% rate or 190 donors who have given for between 1 and 10 years and grow every year?  Invest in a senior class gift but spend more on long term engagement and connections to young alumni than on the gift program.  The short term return may be a bit lower but several years in you will benefit and a decade from now, you or whomever is in your role will be hugely grateful.


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