Holly Palmer is one of the leading figures in the world of alumni, donor and volunteer research. Her mission is to bring these audiences closer to education institutions through two-way dialog and excellent supporter care. Since founding Holly Palmer Consulting in 2016, she has presented at industry conferences on topics including creating a relationship fundraising culture, how to improve donor retention and how to design a meaningful alumni research study.

In this blog, she looks at some of the key findings from her Higher Education Donor Experience Research Project, a study run with Qualtrics.

Why give money to your college?

There are lots of people who choose to do so, and the UK higher education sector now raises in the region of £1 billion a year in philanthropic funds. Many who are giving the biggest gifts didn’t graduate from the institutions to which they’re now donating. However, the majority of a college’s donors are its own alumni. This is unsurprising – after all, alumni spend the formative years of their lives there and many feel an emotional connection to it even decades later.

But the money raised is only part of the story. The number of alumni who give back to their alma mater hasn’t grown as much as the boom in college education would suggest, and over the last three years, the growth in alumni donor numbers has stagnated.[1]

Worryingly, many colleges find that benefiting from an alumnus’s generosity in one year is no guarantee of the same in future years – in some cases, three quarters of donors who sign up to give a monthly gift for the first time will cease giving within a year.[2]

Maybe measuring the proportion of alumni who donate isn’t useful if it doesn’t change much, and maybe retaining only a small proportion of new donors isn’t a problem if other kinds of donors keep giving, but these numbers still raise important questions.

  • Why do a much higher proportion of alumni who graduate from US institutions and Oxbridge donate?[3]
  • Why do so many alumni who decide to give, stop giving within 12 months?
  • And why do we as a sector raise most of our philanthropic funds from a relatively small group of donors?

People usually choose to donate to a cause because they care about it, and they usually stop donating when they don’t know if they’re really making a difference to that cause. The psychology of giving is more complex than that of course, but the evidence does show that how satisfied a donor feels with aspects of their experience correlates strongly with how long they’re prepared to give to a cause.[4] This comes as no surprise to anyone who works in the higher education development sector, so what’s holding them back from treating donors in ways that would lead to more alumni donating, and donating for longer?

This question lies at the heart of the Higher Education Donor Experience Research Project, the first large-scale study to investigate the higher education donor experience from the perspective of practitioners. It’s being guided by practitioners with support from partners including Qualtrics, our research agency Holly Palmer Consulting, and user-research consultancy Fowlam, and it has captured the views of practitioners across 16 depth interviews, and a survey to which over 350 people responded.

We have gathered evidence on how practitioners themselves view the donor experience and the barriers they face in trying to improve it, but also drawn insights about other areas: leadership and culture, how fundraisers learn more about their craft, attitudes towards audience research, and how the donor experience is managed and measured.

A report due in Spring 2019 will detail the findings in full, together with a set of practical recommendations for how those working in the sector can make the case for change and see it through. You can learn more at hedonorexperience.com, but in the meantime look out for more blogs from us in the coming months on this topic.

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[1] https://hollypalmerconsulting.com/2018/07/25/the-ross-case-2018-report-are-we-reaching-our-potential/

[2] https://www.morepartnership.com/library/The%20truth%20about%20regular%20giving.pdf

[3] https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Donations-to-Colleges-Up-6-in/242441

[4] http://www.fpmagazine.com.au/adrian-sargeant-on-building-donor-loyalty-part-2-343135/