Stop Wasting Your Gift Officers’ Time: Interview with Joseph Volin on Engagement Metrics

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What if you could figure out exactly how undergraduate involvement influences future giving and use it to find alumni donors and leaders waiting for your call?

Fundraising in higher education is hard. Not only is it challenging to identify donors with the capacity to give, you have to find those who also want to give. Then there’s the cost—each individual gift officer prospect visit can cost an average of $2,000!

Most of us in student affairs and advancement have heard some form of this phrase: if a student is more involved as an undergrad, they’re more likely to give back and be involved after they graduate. In fact, it’s an assumption many of us operate under.

Well, it’s a new year and a great time to question our assumptions!

What if you could figure out exactly how undergraduate involvement influences future giving and engagement? What if you could use this as a way to identify alumni donors and leaders—specifically, those who want to be a part of what your institution is doing? Better yet—what if you could find alumni who want to give but don’t even know it yet?

One researcher is on that path. Joseph Volin did his undergraduate at Lewis University and has a master’s and a doctorate in Adult and Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. He is the Director of Alumni Engagement at Chicago-Kent College of Law. We recently connected for a conversation about the work he’s been doing with alumni engagement metrics.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

JV: In my previous position in Alumni Relations at Lewis University, I worked with student organizations and alumni affinity groups. Right away, I saw clear connections between the two.

CS: And at this point you decided to pursue your doctorate. What did you want to research?

JV: In student affairs, we’ve all heard that being involved as an undergrad means you’re more likely to be involved after you graduate. But I couldn’t find the data to back that up, so I decided to research* the correlation between student involvement and the likelihood of being engaged as alumni.


CS: What did you learn along the way in this research? What surprised you?

Volin quote

JV: I found a correlation. For every two instances of student involvement, students are 31% more likely to be engaged as alumni, whether monetarily or non-monetarily. Another major finding was that people who get involved directly after graduation were more likely to stay involved. For every year that passed post-graduation, alumni were 13.8% more likely to demonstrate a lower level of giving. Meaning it is more difficult to get them involved with each passing year.

CS: How can your research help professionals engage regional alumni specifically?

JV: I looked at and coded zip codes where the alumni lived, and found that for every 100 miles that they are away from the central campus, they are 42.3% more likely to demonstrate lower levels of giving; so they’re less likely to give the further from the school that they live.

Our insight: So it is not only important to engage alumni right after they graduate, but to form and maintain that bond before and as they move further and further away. Contact us today to learn how we can help you identify and engage passion-based clusters of major donors in Chicago and other major regions.

CS: How are you expanding this research or how would you like to?

JV: I’m working with a consulting firm to advise nonprofits and colleges on how to include this research as a component in their campaign planning. Through the firm, I’m working with a wealth training company on developing a way to lay the model I developed over wealth screening data. This would allow gift officers to spend their time more efficiently.

Future Challenges for Fundraisers

CS: Shifting gears a bit—what do you think will be the biggest challenge advancement professionals will face in 2019?

JV: It will absolutely be resources—not just staffing, but time. An institution can have the best staff in the world but they won’t be effective if they’re spreading themselves too thin. Schools are under pressure to bring in more money, so focusing on data may not be a top priority. But if you want to have that long-term success, you need to spend more time on data management and data health.

CS: In your work, what best practices have you learned when it comes to how institutions use technology and data in advancement?

JV: Two things:

Be consistent. You want the data on one person’s record to have the same level of detail and importance as someone else’s data. Every school aims to prioritize giving data and the importance of processing gifts appropriately. I’d like to see all schools apply the same level of priority to volunteer data and event attendance. Non-monetary tracking needs to be just as important.

Be thorough. You want to be able to code and track the information you need. If there is data being held by some other area or office on campus, get that data and put it in your system. Getting it can be simpler than it seems.

Technology Solutions

CS: There are a lot of technology solutions out there right now—how can alumni relations and advancement professionals cut through the noise to find what is most worthwhile for them and their institution?

JV: Do your research. Talk to a couple different vendors. Be careful not to be swayed by organizations that have a lot of partnerships; they might not be the best fit for you. I’ve found that smaller vendors, those that are 3 or 4 years old, can be very responsive, and you can grow your relationship with them. For example, if you have a certain need, they might be able to develop a service for you as they’re developing their platform.

CS: In my research, I’ve found that many institutions don’t have the data they want, yet often don’t know where to start, which can be paralyzing. Where is a good starting point for gathering this data on student involvement?

JV: Students usually have to apply to graduate. Institutions can include questions on that required application to gather information on student involvement. For example, asking students:

1.What organizations were you involved in?

2. Which experiences were meaningful?

Our insight: In addition, ALUMinate’s data partner, Uprising Technology, can clean and streamline your current alumni data and find data you didn’t even know you were missing. Watch the quick video below to learn exactly how Data + People = Success.  



CS: What are you up to next? Where can our readers find out more?

JV: I’ll be presenting a webinar for the Annual Giving Network in January on using data to increase the success of annual giving programs. Otherwise, you can find me at and on LinkedIn and working as an adjunct consultant with Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt, a Chicago-based fundraising consulting firm.

Thank you to Joseph for sharing his time and insights with me! Check back on Feb 12th for a deep dive into the top challenges facing university fundraisers in 2019.

Want to help our research? Share your insights (using the link or form below) on the top challenges you’re facing, in this quick, 5-question survey.

*Joseph described his research methods as follows: “I looked at the correlation between student involvement and the likelihood to be engaged as alumni. I defined student involvement as membership and involvement in student organizations, collegiate sports teams, intramurals, and receiving an academic honor or award. I defined likelihood to be engaged as alumni as any event attendance, volunteer participation, giving, and communication (opening and clicking emails from the institution, staying involved electronically, etc.). I put out a call on the CASE listserv and was contacted by an institution that really fit the bill and had the right data.”

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