How soliciting for donations right now could compromise your brand How soliciting for donations right now could compromise your brand

I’m on a WhatsApp chat with a good group of guys. We mostly share funny memes, release dates for new Jordans, and thoughts on whatever sporting event is live at that moment (which right now, is no sporting events).

Occasionally, one of the members will share something that strikes them as particularly remarkable. And we’ll commiserate, or debate. Typical group chat stuff.

That’s how I came to see this email, apparently forwarded to alumni of Ole Miss.

It’s not surprising that reaction from the general public (read: social media) has been fierce: to approach alumni for donations while many people are facing unemployment, uncertainty or worse in the weeks and months ahead is tone-deaf, at best.

It’s not surprising that reaction from the general public (read: social media) has been fierce: to approach alumni for donations while many people are facing unemployment, uncertainty or worse in the weeks and months ahead is tone-deaf, at best.

But we’re not going to pile on here. Ole Miss has since apologized, citing a previously scheduled newsletter delivery for the snafu. Their error is completely understandable (and owning up to it is admirable). These are unprecedented times, and people are making unprecedented miscalculations. We’re all learning as we go.

To us, the bigger implication is what impact a misstep of this kind has on your brand. Because, even though no one can agree on how long this disruption will last (though most conversations seem to have transitioned from ‘weeks’ to ‘months’), we all agree that we will get out of it. And we all know that some degree of economic downturn is inevitably on the other side.

Brace yourself. I’m about to position this as an opportunity.

Leaning on ‘Time’ and ‘Talent’ to Engage Alumni

In university development, there are three main ways alumni can give back to their alma mater, which is often referred to as the three T’s: time, talent and treasure.

Treasure, which often takes the shape of financial gifts, is a necessary lifeblood for most institutions. We found several sources that indicated a few leading colleges and universities (the ‘Princetons’ of the world… including Princeton) enjoy philanthropic donations from more than 50% of their alumni community, but the average number of alumni who donate — at any level of giving — is closer to 10-15%.

This means that there could be around 85-90% of your alumni community who, despite repeated solicitation, haven’t been moved or motivated to donate financially to your institution — in good times. Whatever their reasons for holding out, asking them to donate could reinforce their resistance.

Asking unmotivated alumni to donate in challenging times could reinforce their resistance.

Of course, you should continue to reach out to engaged donors – those who have given in the past, and who show a likelihood to give again in the future. But reaching out to an unengaged audience for financial gifts should pause, especially with unemployment numbers rising and uncertainty about when the current situation might end.  

However, if you’re paying attention online, you’ll probably notice that many people are giving their time and talent in extraordinarily inspiring ways. Teachers whose classes have been cancelled are helping parents with home-schooling lessons. Entrepreneurs are offering curbside pickup and free delivery of their products to mitigate face-to-face contact. Artists are creating and curating art through their social networks.

Every day, we’re inspired by the ingenuity and creativity of each other as human beings. And though none of us is thankful for the pandemic that necessitated these extreme measures, all of us are nonetheless moved.

Be a Leader in Alumni Engagement by Being an Engaged Follower On Social Media

Here’s the thing: your school follows your alumni back on social media (and if you don’t . . . I mean, come on). They are the manifestation of what you exist to do. Right now, using their time and talent, they are doing extraordinary things, big and small, to support and uplift the community around them. And as their alma mater, you can enhance their impact (and your esteem with them, and within their social circles) by celebrating their efforts, too.

There are institutions that have picked up on this quickly. With many people searching for answers on how to adapt to the current climate, some universities and colleges are engaging alumni to participate in Q&A panels and webinars, for the benefit of their entire alumni audience (and beyond). By giving their time and talent to these initiatives, alumni are offering a valuable resource – and positioning the institution as a trusted authority in the process. It’s reasonable to assume this will pay dividends in fundraising on the other end of this global crisis.

Your best move is to show alumni how you help them, not to ask them to help you.

The best move you can make for the future of your philanthropy and engagement is to show alumni how you help them, and demonstrate how they are helping others — not to ask them to help you. There has never been a more apt opportunity for you to convey your relevance and demonstrate your support for alumni — and God willing, there will never be another opportunity like it in our lifetime.

Share their stories. Promote their efforts. Celebrate their successes. It’s what you exist to do in the best of times, and it’s never been more important than right now. If you do, you’ll give them reasons to continue to give when the circumstances allow. And on the other side of this pandemic, you’ll see the rewards.