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Understanding Your Alumni: The Key to Giving

Remind them to reminisce about their times at your university

October 07, 2019

Though this statement may seem simple, it contradicts the typical attitude of universities eager to meet fundraising goals. The simplest way for institutions to measure and compare alumni’s capacity to give is to represent them as digits. Thus, the metrics traditionally gathered by alumni advancement professionals include number after number: household income, job title, home value, and a myriad of other values that an alumni can be distilled to.

But at the heart of the matter, your alumni are people, too. A wealthy alumnus won’t necessarily want to give back, even if solicited repeatedly and effectively by your institution. A less well-endowed graduate, conversely, may want to donate even without the university’s solicitation. Wealth is not the best predictor of alumni giving—in fact, research has shown that the most important factor in driving alumni donations is entirely intangible. The proof is in the psyche.

Who Are Your Alumni?

If you think about what constitutes you—a person with countless experiences, opinions and affinities—you would be unlikely to come up with a single answer. Perhaps, you see yourself as a member of a political party, perhaps as a parent, book-lover, or frequent exerciser. More likely, you see yourself as a combination of many specific things, making your identity so complex that you are unable to even put it into words. However complicated, capturing alumni identity is a worthwhile task—as understanding the identity of your alumni will help you effectively predict giving. So how can you get to know your alumni?

Generally, the self-concept of your alumni is made up of 2 components—social identity and personal identity. Social identity consists of an individual’s sense of belonging to a specific social group. These groups are made up of people with similar social beliefs or identifications, and range from anything from conservatives to skaters to hippies. By being a part of this social group, an individual becomes a member of the “in-group;” everyone else simultaneously becomes part of the “out-group.” Such powerful group identification can be seen in ardent fans of a particular sports team, patriots of a country, and most relevantly, students at a university.

Crucially, college alumni form an “in-group” that consists of only those who attended or graduated from the same university. Upon seeing a university sweatshirt, a declaration of, “Oh, I graduated from there!” makes even a complete stranger a member of the “in-group,” privy to social benefits and privileges. People who attended the same university are instantly connected through their identity as alumni, which boosts their trust and opinion of the other person. This is why employers are likely to hire someone who went to the same university as them, and why college rivalries (which pit in-group against out-group) are often so vehement.

Personal identity, in turn, represents how an individual sees themselves in terms of their particular differences from other members of their in-group. For example, though all alumni are united under the umbrella of having graduated from the same university, each of them identifies with certain unique, personal characteristics. Perhaps, one alumni enjoyed playing club soccer every weekend, and considers recreational athletics to be a big part of their college experience. Another alumni could be a DJ at the college radio station, regularly going to local concerts and hosting a radio show every week. Though these two alumni belong to the same broader social group, they have their own sense of identity within that group.

Harness Alumni Identity

Alumni identity is thus a reflection on how social and personal identity is impacted by an individual’s university experience. Essentially, the concept of alumni identity relates to how strongly an individual alumni’s self-concept is tied with an institution. A father who currently has two kids attending his alma mater and eagerly cheers on the college football team every weekend will have a stronger alumni identity than someone who moved to a foreign country after graduation and lost contact with their university. When a person reflects on who they are, alumni identity is the portion of their self-image that they devote to their university and their time there.

To increase giving, your university should look for ways to strengthen graduates’ alumni identity. Research has shown that a strong sense of alumni identity is positively associated with giving—those who identify with their alma mater more will donate more. To maximize advancement potential, your university should mobilize the major resource it already possesses—the impact that the university experience has on the identity of graduates. 

Remind Them to Reminisce

One way to effectively foster alumni identity is to remind alumni of their best memories at your university. Autobiographical memory has been proven to have a significant relationship with alumni identity—alumni who remember many positive stories from their time in college will want to donate more. To increase giving potential, you should remind donors of how your university contributed to their identity, both in the larger pool of alumni and at an individual level.

To remind alumni about how their time at your university shaped their personal identities, harness the power of reminiscence. When your alumni are prompted to recall specific elements of their college experience—from impactful affinities (sports, Greek life, and clubs) to academic involvement (favorite professors, courses, or research)—they will remember your university’s contribution to their most meaningful memories. By appealing to the strength of your graduates’ personal identities and targeting your efforts to each alumni’s individual experience, you deliver a personalized approach that will encourage giving.

On the other hand, you can strengthen the social identity of your alumni by allowing them to interact with one another in the process of reminiscing. As alumni connect with old friends or other affinity group members online, their sense of belonging to your college’s in-group grows, and they regain some of the alumni identity that may have been lost with time. By engaging with other people who had similar experiences to them, they gain the benefit of using collaborative reminiscence to “fill in the gaps” of forgotten memories, as well as the social benefit of belonging. The “power of the in-group” can also help your university recruit alumni for volunteer work, encourage alumni to provide mentorship opportunities, and to incentivize alumni to donate if other graduates donate as well.

Importantly, the two components of identity go hand in hand, making a personalized approach crucial for successful alumni engagement. After all, bombarding alumni with “one-size-fits-all” content would entail focusing solely on social identity while ignoring personal identity. Though your alumni all graduated from the same institution, they each had individual experiences and interests that shaped their identities.

By harnessing the power of alumni identity, your institution can increase giving from both a personal and a collective perspective. Go beyond numbers in your alumni outreach—and get the results that matter in return. See how you can strengthen alumni identity and maximize giving on CueBack today.

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