Ever hear that?

We’re nearing the end of the fiscal year when this sentiment gets reinforced by the blitz of final appeals. Untrue as the statement is, it represents a view held by many alumni. It’s corrosive and can undo other connections and engagements an alumni program tries to achieve – kind of like an accidental sneeze bringing down a house of cards. How do you mitigate the damage?

Let’s examine the statement. When people say it, what they usually mean is: “The only time my school ever asks me for something is when they ask me for money.” Another false statement, but the re-framing is instructive. Schools have asked graduates to give money for decades, so those regular and repetitive communications are very familiar.

Less familiar – and problematic – is that most schools do not “ask for” anything else from alumni with equal purpose, clarity or consistency. Requests are usually invitational at best, lack urgency, and follow-up is rare. The consequences of a negative response or no response? Little to none. As a result, non-monetary requests often come across as second-class attempts to move alumni to action.

If you want to do better, you need to think – and act – like the fundraisers. Specifically:

1. Build the case – for whatever you’ll be asking. This should be the starting point for any program planning and eventual requests for action. Answer questions like: Why does this activity have value? Who benefits (and how)? What will be better, or stronger, or more available or accessible as a result? What’s the urgency? Example: many schools ask alumni to attend late-summer regional events to help welcome newly enrolling students (and their parents) and symbolically send them off to college. These events can position alumni as important community resources for new families (value); alumni get to meet “today’s students”, which usually reinforces the quality of both students and alumni (benefits); the role of the school’s regional network gets lifted up (better/stronger); and, at what can be a nervous or anxious time close to the start of school, families appreciate a final affirmation that helps them feel good about their enrollment decision (urgency).

2. Set a goal – yes, you should have a goal, just as you would with any sort of campaign. Test the goal to make sure it’s the right combination of achievable and aggressive: you should know that you need ### alumni to participate/act/attend in order to achieve success and declare victory. Example: We expect to see 20 new students (and several parents) at the summer welcome event, so if at least 20 alumni attend, our school will demonstrate a personal touch that the newest members of our community will value and appreciate.

3. Develop convincing communications – as I’ve written elsewhere, you are competing for people’s attention and time. A strong case will help but won’t stand on its own; you must persuade and compel your audience to act. Example: “You’re busy, it’s summer, and we wouldn’t ask you if this wasn’t important, but: first impressions are lasting. Please spend 90 minutes with us and help (SCHOOL) make a great first impression with our newest students and their parents…”

4. Ask with purpose and clarity. “You’re invited” works for weddings and birthday parties but beyond those, not so much. Spell out the objective(s). Example: “We want you to help members of our Class of 2022 begin to see their future through your path and experiences. This event is “a moment” during which 60-second conversations between alumni and new students often change lives. And: they’re fun! Come and speak with a student or two and help start their amazing journey at (SCHOOL).”

Also: plan to follow up the initial request. Ask more than once (like the fundraisers do).

Finally, treat positive responses as gifts: contributions of value which should be recorded, acknowledged, recognized, and reported. If you want behaviors to repeat, stewardship activities need to happen.

Execute these steps and your results are going to improve. Over time, your non-monetary requests will become as compelling as what the fundraisers are asking – maybe even more compelling.

(Photo credit: Piotr Bizior)