How to Engage Young Donors

I’ve heard the complaints. I’ve probably griped about it myself at one point in time.

You’ve just graduated from college. Or, you’re a few years out. Or, you’re a decade out, but those pesky student loan debts are still there, siphoning off the top of your bank account each month.

And then you get a call. Or an email. It’s your alma mater, looking for what sounds a lot like a handout.

You just paid them $100k or more in tuition and fees, and now they want more?

Good luck with that.

I’m making light of this all-too common-situation, of course, but it’s a real problem for higher ed institutions. How do you engage recent graduates and attract new, younger donors you can hopefully massage into lifelong givers who will give more as their financial lives find a more solid foundation?
Here are four ways you can begin attracting—instead of repelling—young donors.




1. Crowdfunding


People don’t want to give away their hard earned money. But they will do it happily if they can see a direct benefit. And sometimes, that benefit comes in the form of FOMO.

People—especially young people—don’t want to miss out. If something’s going on, they want to be a part of it.

That’s why crowdfunding is such a powerful tool for giving campaigns.

One of our clients in the higher ed space has taken this particular flavor of social pressure and earmarked a day every year where they crowdfund small amounts of money from as much of their alumni base as possible.

With a robust social media marketing strategy supporting the whole initiative, they’re able to make giving on this day a very public, very “we’re all in this together” event. It feels less like an NPR fundraising drive and more like a celebration of the experiences the alumni base have had at or adjacent to the university.

It feels less like the university is asking for money, and more like they’re giving alumni, faculty, and staff the chance to give back a little to benefit the next generation. It’s a nuanced turn in the psychology of fundraising, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work like gangbusters.



2. Gamification



People like to win. They also like to be on a winning team.

That’s why adding a little old fashioned friendly competition to the fundraising mix is so effective.

One of our team members here at Vinyl donated money to her alma mater just a few weeks ago because there was a competition between the classes. Her “team” (Class of 2007, represent!) came in second after all the smoke had cleared.

She took legitimate pride in this runner-up status. And although the remark was a bit offhand, I still caught it. “Next year,” she said. “We’re going to win for sure.”

Getting people excited about giving? It doesn’t get more rewarding for your institution than that.



3. The Small Ask



There’s an old sales trick that’s rooted deeply enough into our collective unconscious that it still works, even if you know it’s coming at you from ten miles away.

I don’t know the technical name for it, but I’m going to call it the “mini buy-in technique.” Here’s how it works.

I want you to buy something expensive. Let’s say it’s a watch. Like, a nice watch.

If I ask you if you want to buy the watch, you’re going to look at the price tag and shake your head rather violently back at me.

But, I’m a good salesperson, so I’m going to start in a different place.

I ask if you’re having a good day. You say, “Yes.”

I ask if you’ve ever owned a watch. You reply, “Yes.”

Then I ask if you want to see one of our newest models. You’re game because you’re an awesome person. “Yes.”

I ask a few more questions I already know the answer to and keep getting those affirmatives.

The upfront big ask doesn’t generally work. But, if I start with some different questions and ease you “up” toward the final ask, all those yeses have begun to pile up and I’ve created a pattern in our transaction that—due to whatever synaptic gymnastics are going on in the deeper whorls of our lizard brain—you’re going to have a tough time breaking out of.

I’m training you to say “yes.”

And, although you may not walk out of the showroom with a fancy new watch, I’ve increased the odds significantly.

Similarly, if you’re a recent grad and I come to you and ask for $100, you’re going to tell me—politely, of course, because you’re an awesome person, as we’ve already established—to pound salt.

But, what if I come to you and ask you for a dollar? You probably have that much in your sedan’s cupholder. So, yeah, you’ll give me a dollar. Sure.

Then, the next year, I come and ask for $5. You’ve already given before—that myelin has already started to generate in your brain—and you’re happy to part with a measly Lincoln. Over the next few years, as my ask goes up, you are far more likely to give me what I’m proposing.

All those little gifts—like little green yeses—are building up, and the more they do, the more likely you’re going to become a lifelong donor.




4. Non-Monetary Asks


I think higher education institutions tend to think a little too narrowly sometimes when it comes to what they’re asking of their alumni bases. Giving can be more than money.

Maybe, instead of asking for a financial donation, you send out a call asking for recent grads to donate an hour on campus answering undergrads’ questions about what it’s like to join the job market, or what starting out as a brand new adult feels like.

They might not have much money at the moment, but they probably have an hour to spare—especially if you position the ask in a way that makes them feel smart, special, and in possession of a nugget or two of rare wisdom.

The ask could really be anything. The important thing is that it should spark engagement.



The Key: Value



Which leads nicely into the crux of this whole discussion.

A lot of recent grads balk at the idea of giving back, not because they’re completely broke, but instead because they don’t see any value in the gesture. They don’t feel any value coming their way. They only feel like you’re taking something, and not giving anything back.

This notion of value is incredibly important. To fundraise effectively, your position as a university has to be a value-first approach.

You’ve got to give before you can get. Otherwise, engaging recent graduates and young donors is going to be an uphill battle.


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