April 7, 2015

Sifting Through Your Alumni to Find Your Donors

If your nonprofit existed for a decade or more, you have alumni: people whom you served once with the potential to be donors. Benefits of engaging alumni include:

  • They know your work (or at least what you once provided,)
  • You can gin up legitimate reasons to connect,
  • Some have a deep and abiding passion for your work.

Alumni challenges include:

  • Their numbers. Some entities, such as the Girl Scouts, encompass millions.
  • Over time without new fuel, alumni warmth cools.
  • Any allegiance to you competes with a plethora of other philanthropic possibilities collected during a lifetime. (See graphic below.)

Yet, some of your alumni feel a deep and enduring passion for your organization. Use this as motivation to override the challenges. Satisfying alumni work involves identifying alumni who love you and, if necessary, reigniting their passion. (You also have opportunities to kindle fire in alumni who are lukewarm. Most find it’s best to regard them as potential donors who are “likely to agree to meet.”)

To work with your alumni, you’ll want to sort them into “may give” and “unlikely to give.” This will allow you to focus. Dumping all alumni into one pile is akin to mixing darks and lights when doing laundry. It gives you muddled results. To shorten your list, you need to learn about:

  • Their experience. Do they view you negatively or positively? The perception might have nothing to do with you, i.e., it was a bad time in their lives and they don’t want to think about it. Or, it might have been the experience. Amy gives generously to her college. She dumps graduate school requests with a curse. If they remember a wonderful experience, consider working with them more.
  • Why they were involved. Was it their affinity with you or to support a friend? If they choose “you” for you, you have increased potential for even more relationship. If they choose you because of a friend or a relative recommended involvement, your potential decreases.
  • Their values and any philanthropic investment “rules.” Their values may include you, but their philanthropic rules might not. For instance, they’ve moved and their policy calls for investing locally. Their values may include peripheral or no interest in your cause. Depending on the broadness of your work, you can often “fit” into their interest areas. If not, you’ll want to resist focusing on them.

From the nonprofit’s perspective, it’s natural to desire alumni status to be a strong motivator. You do good work and people benefited from it. Nostalgia does motivate, as witnessed by the abundance of class reunions. However, while yesterday may inspire infrequent gatherings, donors seek to solve current and future needs. While you’ll look back to find alumni, look to now to help them to fulfill their philanthropic goals. Alumni are like candles. Help them to reach their goals. Their flames will grow larger, and they’ll provide you warmth and light.



Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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