JMU Aims To Breed Philanthropic Culture In Its Future Alumni
Posted: January 19, 2013
“Once they realize and hear the [rate of giving] is really that low, it really compels people to jump on board,” says Kelly Snow, director of annual giving at James Madison University, of her work with potential alumni donors. (DN-R Illustration by Nikki Fox)
While Kelly Snow, director of annual giving at JMU, said donations from graduates have improved this fall over last, the number of graduates who donate to their alma mater — about 7,700 students — is barely half the 13 percent nationwide average calculated by U.S. News & World Report.
In Virginia, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and Radford universities all come in below JMU’s 7 percent. Others, like Virginia Tech, Longwood University, Christopher Newport University and the University of Mary Washington, are higher, according to preliminary data collected from a survey disseminated by the Council for Aid to Education.
Of the $8.1 million JMU received in donations for fiscal year 2012, $6.6 million came from alumni; accounting for 81.6 percent of contributions.
“We definitely feel very confident with where we’re at,” Snow said.
But given an alumni survey reporting that 97 percent of respondents had a good experience at JMU, Snow acknowledged the percentage itself leaves room for improvement.
“That satisfaction and the high affinity that our alums seem to have for the university just doesn’t seem to reflect in our alumni giving rate; there seems to be a disconnect,” she said.
Several targeted efforts in the fall semester may be bridging the gap, though.
Snow said her office is first and foremost getting the message out to alumni about the giving rate.
“I think a lot of alumni feel like either their gift doesn’t matter or other alumni are giving, so it doesn’t matter,” Snow said. “But once they realize and hear [the rate] is really that low, it really compels people to jump on board.”
One way the message is getting out is through President Jonathan Alger’s “Why Madison? Listening Tour.”
“This is an area we continue to explore,” Alger said following a board of visitors meeting Friday.
“We’ve got to start that culture of philanthropy with our students. Obviously, they are future alumni.”
During the meeting, Alger highlighted the alumni giving rate as an area for improvement and shared his experience delivering the message to JMU graduates on the listening tour.
“That has really resonated I think at these events, both on campus and off campus,” he said.
This year, the university has a goal of 8,785 alumni donors. So far, 5,350 alumni have donated; that’s up from 4,528 donors who had pledged money at the same point last year.
“We like to look specifically at our actual donor numbers. The actual percentage rate itself is going to move incrementally because our graduating class is always growing,” Snow said.
At area private schools, reaching alumni is an ongoing emphasis. Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University boast the highest alumni giving rates locally, at 19 percent and 23.2 percent, respectively.
EMU alumni donated $2.2 million in 2011-12. That accounts for 44.5 percent of the university’s total donations of $5 million in that year.
Phil Helmuth, executive director of development at EMU, said the 23.2 percent alumni donation rate is good compared to other schools, but more donations never hurt.
“Alumni giving for us is always important,” said Helmuth. “That becomes one of our natural constituencies for us to solicit.”
Private colleges rely more on donations as a main funding source than public schools, which receive state support. Private schools are funded mainly through tuition and fees, grants and fundraising.
“Contributions are definitely a major part of the financial stability of any private institution,” EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said, adding that the rate can have other effects. It figures, for example, into the U.S. News & World Report ratings of best colleges.
“It is an indicator of support for the alma mater, so therefore it is an indicator that we think is important,” Swartzendruber said. “We are very pleased with our strong alumni participation rate at EMU. Of course, we would always like to see growth and contributions from all of our donor segments.”
At Bridgewater College, $4.9 million was brought in through donations in 2011-12, $3 million of which was from alumni.
“We always want to improve our numbers and improve giving rates,” said Abbie Parkhurst, director of marketing and communications for BC. “It is so important. It’s really the crux of so much of what we can do and what we can do here on campus for students.”
Alumni relations programs at community colleges are fairly new, according to Amy Kiger, executive director of the Blue Ridge Community College Educational Foundation.
“Unlike our counterparts at four-year colleges and universities, community colleges have not actively tracked alumni, nor fostered ongoing relationships with alumni that would result in significant giving,” Kiger wrote in an email.
BRCC President John Downey said businesses are typically the college’s biggest donors and that the call to focus on alumni came only within the past couple of years.
“Community colleges in general have a tough time with alumni giving,” Downey said. “Our efforts, although they’re new, seem to be paying off in more ways than just financial donations. We ask about the impact BRCC has had on their lives [and] we get back some amazing answers.”
The process of soliciting alumni for donations is especially new for BRCC, Kiger said. In 2011-12, Blue Ridge started the process of locating and reaching out to alumni.
So far, the school has mailing addresses for 14,038 alumni and solicited 5,400 of those individuals in 2011-12. During the year, $28,518 was donated by 70 alumni, for a 0.5 percent giving rate. Of those solicited, 1.3 percent gave back. Donations to BRCC in 2011-12 totaled $682,109.
“We are in the infancy of an alumni relations program, but were encouraged that it resulted in gifts from 70 alumni donors just last year,” Kiger wrote.
Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or email@example.com