Colleges raising more, but from fewer alumni

January 03, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Maryland colleges and universities ended a strong fundraising year with a pair of billion-dollar campaign announcements from the University of Maryland, College Park and the Johns Hopkins University, and a flurry of major gifts that included $50 million to Hopkins and $5 million to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But in addition to sharing seven figures, the gifts making headlines in recent months had something else in common: Virtually all were made by friends and foundations, not former students of the receiving institution.

While alumni gifts still form the largest chunk of voluntary giving to higher education - and overall dollars contributed are increasing - the percentage of students giving back to old Alma Mater has been trending downward in recent years, a phenomenon that has college fundraisers worried about the future, even as they celebrate the current good times.

"All over the country, the percentage of alumni giving has dropped, and it's a concern among all institutions except maybe for the very elite," said Sheldon Caplis, vice president for institutional advancement at UMBC.

In response, public and private campuses alike are trying to forge stronger bonds with alumni and habituate younger ones to annual-fund giving.

Initiatives range from manufacturing on-campus traditions designed to become nostalgic touchstones for future appeals, to using peer-to-peer online networks such as MySpace and Facebook.com for communication with a new generation of alumni who frequently don't have land-based phones and are resistant to traditional fundraising methods.

Though the overwhelming majority of alumni dollars comes by way of major gifts from wealthy donors, the relatively small contributions made by rank-and-file alumni are highly prized because they are less likely to be restricted to a particular use.

Alumni-giving rates of those with bachelor's degrees are also considered indicators of student satisfaction, and factor into influential rankings such as those produced by U.S. News and World Report.

Nationwide, the percentage of all alumni giving money to their former campuses - including those with graduate degrees and transfers or drop-outs - was 12.4 percent in 2005, "representing a slow, continuous decline from 2002, when it was 13.4 percent," according to the 2006 annual survey of college fundraising published by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education.

Declines have occurred across all campus categories, from private liberal arts colleges - which boast the highest rates of alumni support - to public research universities. The latter are now aggressively courting private money in their bid to compete with elite private schools, at a time when state funds account for a shrinking portion of operating budgets.

The trend is particularly challenging for public flagship universities like College Park, which announced a record billion-dollar campaign in October, but which has historically neglected to maintain strong connections with alumni.

Though the percentage of former students who gave to the school rose from 5.4 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 2002, the rate has since slipped to 10.4 percent in 2005, according to comparative data compiled by the University of Florida. That's only half the alumni-giving rate of flagship schools in Virginia, North Carolina and Kansas, where alumni identification with school colors takes on an almost religious significance.

"This is a serious problem ... as they attempt to wean themselves from dependence on the public treasury," said Richard A. Hesel of Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in higher education. "It's not only the money that makes a difference, but also the building of an alumni body that becomes a powerful source of advocacy for the institution."

College Park officials acknowledge that they are still playing catch-up in the alumni-relations game. The alumni association was founded only in 1989, more than 130 years after the institution's inception.

Part of the recent decline in the percentage of alumni giving, according to vice president for university relations Brodie Remington, is attributable to the association's success at locating former students scattered around the country and the world - thereby increasing the total number of alumni used for the calculation.

"Within the last five years, we have literally found approximately 40,000 alumni, on a base of what is now about 250,000 alumni," Remington said. "And since they had been lost, we have never communicated with them."

School officials are not complacent, however, predicting that persuading alumni to donate will only become more difficult in the long run. "There's much more competition for philanthropic dollars," said Remington, who has been at College Park for eight years.

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