Colleges raising more, but from fewer alumni

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland colleges and universities ended a strong fundraising year with a pair of billion-dollar campaign announcements from the University of Maryland, College Park and the Johns Hopkins University, and a flurry of major gifts that included $50 million to Hopkins and $5 million to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But in addition to sharing seven figures, the gifts making headlines in recent months had something else in common: Virtually all were made by friends and foundations, not former students of the receiving institution.

While alumni gifts still form the largest chunk of voluntary giving to higher education - and overall dollars contributed are increasing - the percentage of students giving back to old Alma Mater has been trending downward in recent years, a phenomenon that has college fundraisers worried about the future, even as they celebrate the current good times.

"All over the country, the percentage of alumni giving has dropped, and it's a concern among all institutions except maybe for the very elite," said Sheldon Caplis, vice president for institutional advancement at UMBC.

In response, public and private campuses alike are trying to forge stronger bonds with alumni and habituate younger ones to annual-fund giving.

Initiatives range from manufacturing on-campus traditions designed to become nostalgic touchstones for future appeals, to using peer-to-peer online networks such as MySpace and Facebook.com for communication with a new generation of alumni who frequently don't have land-based phones and are resistant to traditional fundraising methods.

Though the overwhelming majority of alumni dollars comes by way of major gifts from wealthy donors, the relatively small contributions made by rank-and-file alumni are highly prized because they are less likely to be restricted to a particular use.

Alumni-giving rates of those with bachelor's degrees are also considered indicators of student satisfaction, and factor into influential rankings such as those produced by U.S. News and World Report.

Nationwide, the percentage of all alumni giving money to their former campuses - including those with graduate degrees and transfers or drop-outs - was 12.4 percent in 2005, "representing a slow, continuous decline from 2002, when it was 13.4 percent," according to the 2006 annual survey of college fundraising published by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education.

Declines have occurred across all campus categories, from private liberal arts colleges - which boast the highest rates of alumni support - to public research universities. The latter are now aggressively courting private money in their bid to compete with elite private schools, at a time when state funds account for a shrinking portion of operating budgets.

The trend is particularly challenging for public flagship universities like College Park, which announced a record billion-dollar campaign in October, but which has historically neglected to maintain strong connections with alumni.

Though the percentage of former students who gave to the school rose from 5.4 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 2002, the rate has since slipped to 10.4 percent in 2005, according to comparative data compiled by the University of Florida. That's only half the alumni-giving rate of flagship schools in Virginia, North Carolina and Kansas, where alumni identification with school colors takes on an almost religious significance.

"This is a serious problem ... as they attempt to wean themselves from dependence on the public treasury," said Richard A. Hesel of Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in higher education. "It's not only the money that makes a difference, but also the building of an alumni body that becomes a powerful source of advocacy for the institution."

College Park officials acknowledge that they are still playing catch-up in the alumni-relations game. The alumni association was founded only in 1989, more than 130 years after the institution's inception.

Part of the recent decline in the percentage of alumni giving, according to vice president for university relations Brodie Remington, is attributable to the association's success at locating former students scattered around the country and the world - thereby increasing the total number of alumni used for the calculation.

"Within the last five years, we have literally found approximately 40,000 alumni, on a base of what is now about 250,000 alumni," Remington said. "And since they had been lost, we have never communicated with them."

School officials are not complacent, however, predicting that persuading alumni to donate will only become more difficult in the long run. "There's much more competition for philanthropic dollars," said Remington, who has been at College Park for eight years.

Rising tuition and increasing student-loan debt have also made it more difficult to convert recent graduates into donors, said Peter J. Fissinger, a senior vice president at Chicago-based Campbell & Company, a fundraising consultant that advises colleges. "Young alumni today tend to see education less as a philanthropic endeavor and more as a transaction," Fissinger said.

College Park's annual fundraising budget this year is nearly $9 million, about a third more than it was three years ago, and the campus is reaching out to more alumni than ever before.

Charles "Dan" McGuire, a 1962 graduate and president of the Northern Virginia alumni chapter, welcomes the increased contact but says he and many of his former classmates have chafed at the hard-sell fundraising message.

"I think they've got to somewhat lower their emphasis on money," said McGuire, 68, a government lobbyist who gives between $100 and $500 to the school every year. "I think they've got to first develop a loyalty to the school."

In Maryland's case, that would mean imbuing in older alumni a school spirit that was largely absent from the campus before the 1990s, when the university lacked its current prestige and a large percentage of students were commuters.

Today, Terrapin spirit is enjoying a renaissance on campus, which bodes well for strengthening ties with future alumni, Remington said. College Park students have recently revived long-dormant spring cotillion and homecoming parade traditions, and the university is planning a "college town" retail-and-housing development that will give the university community a unifying gathering space.

While the school-spirit initiatives at UM are largely student driven, administrators at Johns Hopkins have in recent years launched initiatives designed to boost student morale, with the ancillary goal of producing fonder memories for fundraisers to tap.

About 35 percent of Hopkins' undergraduate alumni made contributions to the university in 2005, an improvement from about 25 percent 10 years ago, but still behind other private schools that the Baltimore institution considers peers, such as Dartmouth College (50 percent), Duke University (44 percent) and the University of Pennsylvania (40 percent). At UM, about 14 percent of former undergraduates contributed in 2005.

"I feel bad for Hopkins," said senior Elizabeth Fialkowski, 20, of the giving rate. "It makes me feel like people regret coming here."

The history major from Timonium serves on Hopkins' "traditions committee," launched in the fall of 2005 to revive - and contrive - collegiate traditions on the notoriously studious campus, where the principal social activity still seems to be cramming for tests in an underground library.

The traditions committee is one of several student-life improvements designed by the university in recent years, after a 2002-2003 campus commission that found "an endemic culture of competitiveness and complaint" among its undergraduates. Though the student life projects - including a college-town development that brought this year a Barnes & Noble bookstore and upscale dormitory to the Charles Village neighborhood - were not driven by fundraising priorities, the development office was "cheering on the sidelines," said Fritz W. Schroeder, a vice president of development and alumni relations.

"Anything we can do to increase the positive experience of students while they're here can only be helpful to those of us trying to maintain those relationships over time," he said.

The efforts have already yielded fruit, Schroeder said, noting that the percentage of students contributing to the senior class gift has gone up in recent years from about 10 percent to 50 percent last year.

Hopkins, which expanded in October its capital campaign goal from $2 billion to $3.2 billion, is somewhat inured to gradual decreases in alumni giving rates, officials said, because about half of its individual donations come through its medical centers, mostly from grateful patients and wealthy donors interested in funding research.

UMBC doesn't have that luxury.

The 40-year-old public university in Catonsville has established a national reputation as a training ground for future scientists, made possible in part by major gifts by non-alumni friends of the university, such as local philanthropists Robert Meyerhoff and George Sherman. While UMBC is quickly closing in on its current $100 million campaign goal, its 5.5 percent alumni-giving rate must improve if the school is to continue its upward trajectory, believes development head Caplis.

In addition to recently launching its first traditional alumni-led fundraising committee, UMBC is also trying to instill in current students a sense of philanthropic responsibility to the campus. Students are encouraged to consider themselves "alums from Day 1," and repeatedly reminded that their out-of-pocket expenses cover only a fraction of the cost of their education.

The immediate goal isn't so much fundraising as "friendraising," said Emily Gerrett, who runs UMBC's social outreach programs, which range from wine tastings to career networking events. Recent graduates aren't hit up for cash until six months after commencement, and then they're only asked for about $20. Gerrett has found that the most effective way of getting people to attend is by having alumni volunteers tap into social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Friendster.

The university also offers alumni various services, such as discounted car insurance and banking services - a ll in the name of keeping former students connected to the institution.

"That's the most important thing," Caplis said. "If you maintain a relationship, ultimately the gift will come."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°