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Need Alumni to Donate ? Ask the Baby Boomers

Older people are more willing to give back

September 09, 2019

Advancement directors often falsely assume that recent graduates should be the target of their advancement strategies. This thinking is perpetuated by the fact that modern technology and social media make millennials easily accessible, millennials’ contact information is likely up-to-date in alumni databases, and their memories of “the good old days” back in college are still fresh in their mind. However, just because millennials are easy to contact, doesn’t mean that they’re the ideal market for university giving.

Student Debt is Rising

The first step in seeking out financial giving is finding alumni that have the financial resources to give. Common sense indicates that alumni who are within their first few years of working will likely be too busy trying to make rent and pay for groceries to find additional income to funnel into advancement projects. Yet, many advancement directors use an advancement strategy that targets these graduates in the same way it targets alumni in their mid-50s.

Studies have shown that these “common sense” concerns about millennials’ willingness to give are valid, and millennials’ capacity to give is actually decreasing over time. The average debt upon graduation from a private university in the United States is $32,300 and has been increasing for over two decades. As a result, many people in their twenties simply don’t have the disposable income necessary to give in material quantities. 

Furthermore, seeking monetary contributions when young alumni are still in debt could lead advancement directors to damage their future willingness to donate. In fact, universities such as Stanford, Dartmouth, and the University of South Florida have already canceled their phonathons, citing poor ROI and annoyance among call recipients. Stanford even stated that their phonathons had a negative ROI, as persistent calls to young students led them to ask to be put on the Do Not Call list (making them unreachable for future asks). No one wants to be treated like an ATM machine, and alumni who are asked to give too much too soon are unlikely to want to give back.

Baby Boomers are Biased to Give

Psychologists have found that as people age, their ability to recall memories is affected by a selective recall bias that makes them remember past experiences more positively than when they initially perceived them. This phenomenon, known to researchers as “positivity bias,” offers a compelling case for why advancement strategies should target older people instead of focusing on millennials.  

 The particular effect that positivity bias can have on older adults was explored in a 2011 study by Berntsen, Rubin, and Siegler. In this study, baby boomers in their 60s were asked to recall one highly positive and one highly negative life event and assess which was more important to their overall life story. The study found that the wide majority of the participants perceived the positive event to be more central to their life story and more intrinsic to their identity

While positivity bias seems to be a universal principle, a 2014 study found that it can only be significantly measured in older adults. Analyzing long-term memory for both younger and older adults, the study found that “older adults typically remembered more positive information than negative information. In contrast, younger adults typically remembered “more negative information than positive information.” This means that while those memories of football tailgates, date functions, and fraternity parties are still fresh in the minds of millennials, so are the memories of harsh professors, all-nighters, and communal bathrooms. 

Older alumni, on the other hand, experience the effects of positivity bias. They no longer focus their thoughts and energy on the less-pleasant aspects of college but instead focus on the long-lasting value and precious memories that their college years gave them. Millennials won’t necessarily respond well to promotional materials meant to incite a willingness to give, recalling tuition bills, and existing student loans. However, if these same advertisements are placed in front of an older audience, they will elicit nothing but nostalgia, positive memories, and a genuine fondness for the university.

 Advancement directors can spend copious amounts of time and money crafting marketing materials meant to elicit feelings of goodwill and nostalgia in their alumni population, but it’s unlikely that their efforts will be able to overcome a hard-wired psychological bias. For this reason, CueBack is designed to take advantage of older alumni’s natural tendency to remember their college experience more positively. By harnessing the power of positive psychology, CueBack creates an alumni engagement experience that will elicit positive memories and goodwill towards an alum’s alma mater, thus increasing willingness to give.

Your University’s “Friends”

This advancement strategy, tailored towards an older audience with more positive recollections of time spent at a university is corroborated by a joint study by Converge Consulting and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). 

In this study, James Vineburgh found that people who donated to their universities were grouped into three categories—Champions, Friends, and Acquaintances. The “Champions” loved their alma mater and were already contributing towards their university’s advancement measures regularly. From the perspective of an alumni relations professional, marketing to these people has less impact, because they would donate regardless of whether they are courted or not. “Acquaintances” had a “transactional” relationship with their university, and felt that they had already paid for their education in the form of tuition and didn’t owe their university much else. On the other hand, “Friends” are willing and able to donate to philanthropic efforts, but aren’t donating the bulk of their charitable contributions to their university. By shifting more alumni relations and advancement efforts to focus on “Friends,” you can maximize your marketing ROI by getting more donations for the lowest cost.

 So, who are these so-called “Friends” of the university? Unsurprisingly, these people are not the millennials that are still paying off their student loans. This particular group is made up of upper-middle age alumni with a high level of disposable income. On average, the “Friends” in this study were 56 years old and made just over $77,000 annually. This group has secured financial success and now has the means to give philanthropically. According to AARP, baby boomers give roughly $61.9 billion a year, versus $15.8 billion by millennials. Advancement’s job is much easier when approaching this group because they merely have to convince them that their university is worthy of their philanthropy.

A Generational Megatrend

Another important trend to acknowledge when seeking out financial giving from alumni is that older alumni are more willing to give to institutions such as colleges than their millennial counterparts. Millennials focus their charitable giving on causes, like ending world hunger, mitigating the rising problem of homelessness, or finding a cure for breast cancer. If alumni advancement directors aim to shift this age group away from their preferred charitable cause, they need to compete for donation dollars against the likes of Habitat for Humanity,, or the Cancer Research Foundation. Swaying millennials away from these organizations would be a massive undertaking, and likely wouldn’t lead to profitable results. 

This generational megatrend underscores the value of baby boomers in the alumni giving marketplace. Older people will be inherently more willing to give to institutions like their alma mater, simply because they paid less for their degrees. In contrast, millennials who have already taken out loans for education are less likely to consider their alma mater as a cause for a charitable donation. According to social exchange theory, though both generations receive similar value from their education, Boomers will be more likely to give because they made less of an initial financial investment.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Studies have shown that, even from childhood, people who are happier are more likely to act charitably and give financially to others. In the United States, the happiest people tend to be older. A study at the University of California, San Diego found a clear linear relationship between age and well-being. Older adults enjoyed improved stress management skills, less anxiety, and less depression. Financial concerns also seem to abate with age, with 40% of the participants aged 18-54 reported being worried about money, compared to only 25% of their counterparts over 65 years of age. 

This phenomenon is described by Laura Carstensen, the Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "When people face endings they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities," she said. "When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur."

 If universities can convince baby boomers that giving to their alma mater is a meaningful and impactful activity, then they can capitalize upon a ripe market for major gifts. However, this giving is contingent upon rebuilding that relationship between an alum and a university. Baby Boomers must be reminded of those sweet college memories—the shenanigans of living in dormitories, the professor who changed their professional aspirations, and the friendships that have lasted for decades after graduation.  

Your University’s Game Plan

Advancement mass-marketing practices are inherently inefficient, rarely achieving results without a personalized touch. According to Tim Seiler, Rosso Fellow in Philanthropic Fundraising, one of the most common complaints among prospective donors is “you’ve asked me too many times.”  Advancement can’t achieve its objectives if it spreads its resources equally across all alumni cohorts. Colleges need to focus more of their efforts on older alumni because of their greater capacity and willingness to give financially. When it comes to advancement strategies, one size does not fit all.

To boost advancement ROI and achieve maximum gift levels for overall advancement efforts, universities should take a much closer look at how they target and engage older generations—especially Baby Boomers. Baby Boomer have different needs, desires, and motivations than millennials, and they’ll engage differently as a result. To successfully adapt their advancement strategies, universities must understand what really appeals to and inspires this generation (for a deeper look into the unique psychological differences of older alumni, we recommend Johnathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve). 

Primarily, colleges need to consider what is meaningful to older alumni. Do they really care about Likes and Followers? Are they looking for mentoring or job opportunities? Chances are, older alumni are more focused on meaningful connection than external validation. The challenge lies in finding a way to bypass the traditional social media and cold-calling approach and discovering a way to remind baby boomers of those memories from “the good old days.”

CueBack helps universities trigger nostalgia, promote emotional wellbeing, and encourage meaningful connection in older alumni. Contact us if you would like to learn more about how CueBack can help you provide value to older, high-value alumni and increase fundraising ROI.

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