A Realistic Look at Annual Funds
Implications for alumni (constituent) relations
There are implications here also for how we think about alumni or constituent relations. Another story line in the ancient history we reviewed at the opening is about the relationship between alumni relations and fundraising. In the old days, the days of volunteer canvassing, alumni relations and annual giving were one. They grew apart in parallel with the rise of mass marketing in annual giving.
Was there a causal connection between these two phenomena — the divorce from fundraising and the rise of technology? Maybe. But the important thing is that they grew apart, far apart. Not long ago it was common to hear an alumni-relations professional eschew fundraising fairly vigorously. One version of the argument held that, “We’re about planting the seeds; development is about harvesting.” Or “We set the table; we don’t dine.” Implied was the argument that fundraising was somehow antithetical to getting people's attention and that, if you insert fundraising into the equation, people won’t listen to your case building.
Certainly, if every event and every magazine article was about asking for money, that argument makes some sense. But is it really that simple? Alumni relations is about engagement. At nearly every institution of higher learning, a simple overview will demonstrate that the vast majority of engaged alumni never attend an event. The principle means of engagement is the annual gift. Maybe a large number also engage through the magazine, website or the online community, but is that engagement as active and meaningful as the check they write? That’s hard to measure.
The problem, it seems, is that when the alumni-relations professional staff walks away from fundraising, it tends to lead the alumni board also in that direction. How many alumni boards tend carefully to the actual work of fundraising? Most feel, like their support staff, that if they push the fundraising agenda, their events, clubs, communications and activities will suffer. Somehow these things don’t fit together comfortably.