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March 23, 2015

Inside the minds of alumni

So much communication is created with only a hunch about how the audience will engage with it. Whether the message and method will work becomes a guessing game.
The development team at Oxford College at Emory University doesn’t want to guess. This spring, Versal is working with Oxford to gain new insight into why some alumni contribute to the college’s annual fund – and why others don’t. The project will inform future fundraising communications.
For colleges like Oxford, such insight is more important than ever.
The prevailing maxim in university fundraising these days is “dollars up, donors down.” Private-gift dollars pour into colleges and universities in increasingly generous amounts, but the percentage of alumni making those gifts is on the decline. So while colleges are still faring OK in their fundraising bottom line, they face the long-term threat of an eroding donor base.
Newer alumni are of particular concern. They tend to give less to their alma mater than older graduates do. One theory holds that the rising cost of higher education has made the relationship between student and college more transactional – I paid you well, you gave me an education, I don’t owe you anything.
Perhaps that’s true. We would add that competition for individual philanthropy is a factor, too – it’s never been more intense. Charities have become far more sophisticated in how they target and appeal to prospective donors. They also have so many new ways to reach their prospects.
This means colleges and universities have to up their fundraising communications game. It’s no longer enough to pluck the strings of yesteryear while slipping alumni a reply envelope. Communications must be better informed by research, and communicators must take some creative risks to engage their alumni.

Ironically, those two actions — pursuing knowledge, taking risks — happen to be defining hallmarks of the college experience. They are now just as crucial to the college fundraising endeavor.
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Versal is very fortunate to have Irm Diorio working with us on the Oxford College project. Irm is a former communications and marketing professional with BellSouth whose alma mater is Cornell. She and her husband Paul have a college student and college grad of their own.



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