3 Ways to Increase Alumni Engagement with Human-Centered Design

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Is it time for your institution to embrace human-centered design to increase alumni engagement and alumni philanthropy?

I read recently that just 5% of alumni from public universities gave back to their alma maters in 2017. This statistic makes me nervous for the future of higher education. Why aren’t more alumni giving back to their alma mater?

Fundraisers spend A LOT of time thinking and talking about what major gifts can do for their college or university. This is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Advancement work needs to start with understanding alumni and donors. (BTW: that’s why our company motto is Alumni Lead the Way.)

The fundraising process should not be ad hoc but designed.

What Is Human-Centered Design?

According to IDEO.org, human-centered design is a “process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.”

Creating strategies and turnkey solutions for major gifts fundraising is what we do. To help university fundraisers, we’ve come up with detailed steps for how to increase alumni engagement with human-centered design.

Step 1 (Ideate): Get Inspired by Your Alumni

To increase alumni engagement with human-centered design, you need alumni to design for and insights to design from. Go back to the basics: who are your alumni and major gift prospects? You probably know what cities they live in, but do you know the ins and outs of those neighborhoods? Through our work with clients, we discovered that clusters of major gift prospects live within a few streets of each other, and some even on the same ones! Where do they spend their time? What are they passionate about? What are their most recent successes? Here are ways to start:

1-Segment and build profiles: When was the last time your department did an in-depth alumni survey? Was it centered on what alumni want from their alma mater? Creating user profiles and alumni personas may be helpful to increase alumni engagement. We like this guide from Hannon Hill.

2-Start with what you have, not what you wish you have: Request one-on-one interviews with engaged, core donors (the ones you wish you had more of). Then ask questions that coax stories out of them. As Esther Choy, our CFO, explains in her book, the right kinds of questions allow people to look at their experiences from a new angle and see what’s interesting about their own lives. You and your donors will be surprised by the insights that can come out of this type of research. Use these insights as you design a strategy and programs that attract more core donors.

Immerse yourself in the stories, successes, and needs of your alumni and prospects. Create spaces and ways for them to share these things.

Next, you need the right tools. Get accurate, robust data on alumni to form insights. You can’t become relevant to an audience you don’t understand or one you have outdated info on. Good data + the right people = fundraising success in higher education. That’s why we’ve partnered with Uprising Tech, which allows us to personalize our approach.

Step 2 (Iterate): Design (and Redesign) Ways for Alumni to Connect & Lead

You’ve created spaces for alumni and prospects to give feedback. You’re listening to them, and synthesizing the insights. What next? What do you do with all that intel?

Begin by mapping out alumni engagement and major gifts strategies that authentically address their questions and anxieties. You’re asking people for their time and money–you need to be able to tackle their concerns.

Sign up for our FREE webinar, How to Address Donors’ 5 Toughest Questions, which will be held Wednesday, April 24th from 12:00 – 1:00 PM CST. We’ll cover endowment return rates, negotiating gift fees and agreements, complying with donor intent, dealing with privacy and security issues, securing proof of planned gifts, and more.

ALUMinate free webinar donors' toughest questions

Next, engage alumni with their abilities and journeys in mind. We created a helpful guide: how to use customer journey mapping to transform your students and alumni into donors and leaders.

Step 3 (Implement): Cultivate Alumni Donors and Leaders with Human-Centered Design

Now it’s time to get the message and opportunity out there. People who work with students and alumni often dislike business lingo. But, in university philanthropy, alumni are the customers.

We offer them a valuable product: the chance to be a part of the institution’s future and ensure all students have access to opportunities. This–access and opportunity–is advancement’s bottom line. So, it’s okay to be bottom-line driven (but not sales-aggressive) in this field, especially when we’re facing so many changes and challenges in higher education.

Communicate your mission clearly and create easy ways for alumni to engage. To do this, you want to be where alumni and prospects are. This is hard to do for alumni who live in regions far from central campus. Let us share our solutions for how we can build a consistent presence in your most important cities.

Continue to increase alumni engagement with human-centered design with intentional follow-through…

-Design transparent gift agreements and demonstrate your end of the contract.

-Don’t lose touch with donors after a gift. Meaningful stewardship is part of a human-centered design for a major gift strategy.  

-Build alumni leader and donor pipelines and attend to them with your full attention. According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, for every 100 donors gained in 2017, 99 were lost through attrition.

-Finally, test and assess. When designing your alumni engagement strategy, be responsive. Constantly test drive new ways of reaching alumni. Measure your success. Revise your strategy in response. And listen well throughout the process because listening isn’t something you check off a to-do list once.

Want to continue the conversation? Or tell us how you increase alumni engagement with human-centered design? I welcome your thoughts and feedback on this article!

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