Relentless

If you’ve been reading my weekly newsletters, Twitter posts, or my book, Philanthropy Revolution, you’ll know that I’m not shy about commenting on my frustrations about how fundraising is done.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only one out there being hit with a bunch of crazy — and often offensive — solicitations.

And then I found the 2020 Alumni Access®, VAESE Alumni Benchmarking Study.

Although this study mainly addresses colleges and universities, the statistics generated are applicable to almost any nonprofit organization.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Of all responding institutions, since 2017 the average number of gift solicitations sent to first-year graduates has increased from 3.7 to 3.9 solicitations per institution per year.

  • The number of schools that send five or more gift solicitations to new graduates during their first year is up 55% from 2015.

  • 46% of participating institutions report to soliciting first-year graduates ten or more times during that first year of graduation.

  • 15% of these institutions send twenty or more solicitations to new grads during the first year.

As the report’s editor, Gary Toyn, writes:

If the best-practice is to “romance” (cultivate) alumni long before you make a “request” (ask for money), why are 78% of higher education institutions soliciting their first-year graduates? Especially considering how many of these new graduates are just launching their professional career, and have barely moved out of the dorms or their parent’s basement. And that says nothing about soliciting graduates who have an average student loan balance of $35,359.

Who decided that this makes sense? If we asked the staff in those university advancement departments how they (personally) would feel if they received ten or more solicitations from the same organization in a given year, what would they say? My guess is that most of them would be annoyed. For some, that warm, fuzzy feeling about the institution they just graduated from (alma mater literally meaning “nourishing mother”), will disappear, and they might want nothing to do with said alma mater ever again.

Another interesting stat from the VAESE report:

The new VAESE study reveals a trend toward a greater number of alumni “opting out” of contact with their alma mater:

  • Since 2015, alumni organizations have experienced a 15% increase in the number of alumni who have asked to be put on the “do-not-contact” or “do-not-solicit” list (referred to as “opting out” of contact with their alma mater.”)

  • 46% of alumni organizations have at least ten percent of their alumni who have permanently opted-out.

  • The number of institutions with at least a ten percent opt-out rate has increased 79% since 2015.

Think there’s a correlation here between the persistent asking and the opt-out rate? Even though there might be other forces at work (the report also finds that over 80% of alumni professionals surveyed say that their alumni see little or no value in the benefits provided), it seems extremely likely and logical that the incessant solicitations are a big part of the story.

I know that some fundraisers will say that the 80/20 rule keeps their organizations running, but what about all those 20-somethings who will be completely turned off by your organization because of your heavy-handedness? One of the promises of higher education is that graduates will be set on a path to be successful in their careers. The promise isn’t that they’ll be successful in the first year after graduating — it’s more that the trajectory after graduating will result in success via higher earning potential.

If that’s the case, then why are many of those same institutions willing to lose the relationship with an increasing number of their alumni — before they even get started in their careers?

When my son graduated from university several years ago, I returned home after the commencement ceremony to find a solicitation addressed to him — asking for a donation. Can you say “mood-killer”?


I’m thrilled to share my first book, Philanthropy Revolution, with the world. I’m lifting the lid on our charitable sector with an authentic account that describes exactly how outdated the sector has become and why it’s at risk of collapse. Get your copy here.

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- Lisa