College fundraisers homing in on alumni

Schools use Web to track recent grads, encourage their donations

Your Money

December 25, 2005|By CAROLYN BIGDA | CAROLYN BIGDA,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Before the ink dries on your college diploma, your alma mater begins to ask for a donation. Paying off student loans? Grappling with credit card debt? Don't have a job? It doesn't matter.

Alumni giving accounted for 27.5 percent of the $24.4 billion raised at colleges and universities in 2004, according to the Council for Aid to Education, with foundations and non-alumni donors making up most of the rest. And though the dollar amount of alumni giving represents a 2 percent increase from the previous year, the number of those donating has been on the decline since 2001.

Internet efforts

As a result, schools are ramping up efforts to reach more alumni, investing in Web-based technology and creating fundraising boards aimed directly at recent grads.

"In the last few years, higher education has shown more interest in using the Internet as a channel to reach donors and alumni," said Greg Neichin, vice president of business development at GetActive, which develops fundraising technology.

In particular, schools are trying to track alumni interests and target their appeals.

"A lot of young alums want to stay in touch with their university, and e-mail is a really nice way to do that," Neichin said. "The idea is to transfer that spirit of affinity to a donation."

Loyola University in Chicago is taking this approach, and plans to launch a new Web site soon.

"It will give us tools to send out e-mails more easily and let alums log in to update their information," said Shena Keith, director of the Loyola Annual Fund. "New graduates are our next batch of successful alumni. We want to engage them and stay connected with them."

At the University of Chicago, a $2 billion fundraising campaign is under way. Young graduates, who make up only 14 percent of alumni donors there, are given a unique Web site (participate.uchicago.edu) to be told why they should donate and how their money will be used.

Donations, argues the university, maintain the quality of education and the reputation of degrees granted. But instead of pushing for large donations (which, of course, aren't discouraged), the university wants to beef up the number of recent grads making donations.

Why? The percentage of alumni who donate influences a school's rank in U.S. News & World Report's annual list of the best colleges and universities. At Princeton University, which tied for first with Harvard in the rankings for 2006, 61 percent of undergraduate alums gave (47 percent give to Harvard). At the University of Chicago, which was ranked 15th, only 29 percent donated.

Advice on giving

In other words, you can make a difference by just giving something.

Some advice:

Give what you can.

Colleges and universities are well aware of the many demands for charitable dollars. And though they appeal for money practically the moment you graduate, schools understand that, as a new grad, you probably don't have the resources to donate big.

"Universities don't just rely on alumni for their giving," said Paulette Maehara, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. "The drop in [the number of] alumni giving also indicates that universities may be going after the larger gifts, not volume."

Thus, if you would like to support your school, donations need not be (nor are expected to be) extravagant.

You also should take time to direct your gift to the program most interesting to you, because future solicitations undoubtedly will focus on that area.

Don't count on a deduction.

Any cash gifts you make to a college or university are tax-deductible if you itemize. But you only itemize your deductions when they add up to more than the typical standard deduction: $5,000 for singles and $10,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Many recent grads take the standard deduction and therefore wouldn't benefit from a tax break on their gift.

Volunteer.

If you can't swing a financial donation but still want to feel connected to your alma mater, consider volunteering instead.

Your school likely has an alumni association in every major city, and these groups always are looking for participants, whether it's helping interview prospective students or attending networking events.

After all, there's more than one way to contribute.

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.

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