Exploring the 20-Year Decline in Alumni Participation

Posted on 04/02/2014

The Council for Aid to Education recently released its annual survey results. Last year, once again, the percentage of U.S. alumni who made a gift to their alma mater (i.e., alumni participation rate) declined to 8.7% — a trend that has persisted year over year for more than two decades. For anyone who cares about or works in education, this is cause for alarm.

Alumni participation is important for many reasons. For starters, it’s one way to measure alumni satisfaction and is a factor in institutional rankings. Longer term, though, it helps develop a broad base of support and serves as a pipeline for major gifts and future campaigns.

Sound The Alarm Image 1Some oversimplify the problem, suggesting that the decline in alumni participation is the result of larger alumni populations – colleges and universities are indeed granting far more degrees today – or a growing reluctance by alumni to answer our calls. Unfortunately, the problem is much more complex.

Rising education costs, student debt loads, and competition from other non-profits are also contributing to the decline. Probably the most significant reason, however, is that many educational institutions have gotten lazy – neglecting to talk about the importance of annual giving and, more importantly, failing to demonstrate the impact of support.

The silver lining here is that institutional leaders, including Presidents and Boards, are starting to take notice. They’re recognizing the problem and are making bigger investments in annual giving. As a result, a new generation of annual giving leaders is beginning to emerge.

Today we’re seeing an increase in the number of AVPs and Executive Directors in charge of annual giving programs with a seat at the decision table. And, for more and more campaigns today, annual giving is a top priority.

The most concerning thing about the declining alumni participation rate is that it suggests a waning confidence in education as a cause worthy of individual philanthropic support. So, if you think that education matters, it’s time for you to stand up and sound the alarm!

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