Complete your Profile

  • Avoid using your real name as username.
  • Avoid using a photo of yourself for your profile picture.
[frontend_admin form="143705"]
Donor Participation Project

The Participation Cliff: Challenges and Opportunities in Engaging Growing Alumni Bases

Alumni participation rates have long been an important metric for higher education fundraising. But with increasing class sizes and more alumni each year, schools face what experts call “the participation cliff”—the nearly impossible task of raising participation rates. This challenge, however, also presents opportunities if schools focus on meaningful engagement over chasing metrics.

According to Dr. Shalonda Martin, an advancement strategy expert, “not only is the work itself hard to increase alumni participation…things like this are almost literally impossible to overcome unless we start saying proportionately.” Some schools resort to “gaming the system” by making broad swaths of alumni inactive to inflate rates. But this tactic ignores the real work of building lifelong relationships with alumni.

Instead of managing the denominator, schools should focus on the numerator by cultivating meaningful interactions and experiences with alumni.

This starts with understanding alumni motivations and priorities, which studies show are more linked to impact and affinity than rankings. Communications and engagement opportunities should highlight the ways alumni can support causes they care about.

Rethinking the traditional phonathon model is one way to foster more meaningful connections. As Perry Radford, founder of Rad Philanthropy, suggests, positioning phonathons “not just [as] about giving, but [as] about volunteerism, …events, [and] mentoring” helps schools tap into alumni’s desire to “help in other ways.” This broader engagement leads to greater long-term contributions.

Advancement offices should also partner more closely with other university departments to coordinate strategic initiatives. Alumni experiences are shaped by their interactions across the university, not just advancement outreach. Using tools like CASE’s Alumni Engagement Metrics (AEM) can help provide insight into the holistic factors influencing alumni perceptions and participation.

While rankings and metrics will likely persist in some form, the US News decision to drop alumni giving rates from its rankings gives schools freedom to concentrate on the relationships that truly inspire lifelong alumni participation. By refocusing resources on meaningful engagement over chasing rates, schools can overcome the participation cliff through a culture of philanthropy and shared purpose with alumni. Authentic connections, not metrics, build the most equitable, impactful advancement programs.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Leave a Reply