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Survey looks at factors that affect alumni giving

STANFORD -- Stanford's relatively low alumni giving rate among undergraduate degree holders appears to be more the result of alumni “disengagement” than unhappiness with the university or its policies, according to a new study by the Office of Development.

In telephone interviews last summer with 642 randomly selected undergraduate alumni, 97 percent said they were satisfied with their undergraduate experience and more than three-quarters said they were very satisfied.

But only 20 percent said they strongly agreed with the statement, “Stanford makes me feel like I'm still an important part of the Stanford community.”

“What comes across loud and clear is not that alumni are unhappy about Stanford, but that they simply don't feel a part of it,” said Stephen Peeps, associate vice president for development and a member of the Class of 1974.

“It seems clear that the university and the Alumni Association need to develop better means to engage alumni meaningfully as the years go by.”

The survey - the first of its kind by the Office of Development - was conducted in July 1994 to better understand why only 25 percent of Stanford's undergraduate degree holders, on average, make annual gifts to the university, compared to more than 50 percent for Harvard. This participation rate has remained about the same ever since Stanford began to keep track of it more than 50 years ago.

“We sensed from this long-standing pattern that the giving rate wasn't driven by events of the day. But we had no reliable, objective data on what the chronic factors affecting giving might be,” Peeps said.

“The other reason we did this survey was our hunch that our alumni don't feel that the university takes much interest in them. Apart from learning about their concerns, we hoped the survey would demonstrate to alumni that their opinions matter to us.”

Chain reaction

Annual giving, the survey found, is the tail end of a chain reaction that begins with the four undergraduate years on campus. “Satisfaction with the undergraduate experience is the single most essential pre-condition for giving,” the report notes. “Those who are not satisfied are, without exception, non-donors.”

The survey found significant differences between those who are very satisfied (78 percent) and those who are anything less than very satisfied. Alumni who felt most challenged by their undergraduate program - and those who felt that Stanford worked to make them aware of the best classes and academic opportunities - were most likely to be donors, as were the third who judged their experiences inside and outside the classroom as equally valuable.

“After graduating, the relationship continues by engaging and communicating with alumni,” notes Jerold Pearson, director of opinion research for the Office of Development, who conducted the study. “Engagement is involving alumni in meaningful ways in the life of the university, treating them as if they (and not just their money) are valued resources. Alumni who are made to feel that they are still an important part of the Stanford community are much more likely to be donors than those who do not feel they are an important part of the Stanford community.”

In the area of communication, the survey found that - apart from the Stanford Observer, the university's alumni newspaper - alumni currently base their impressions of Stanford more on information from outside newspapers, radio and television than from other university sources, such as department newsletters and letters from the president.

And although almost three-quarters of alumni surveyed said they read or look through every or most issues of the Stanford Observer, less than a quarter felt that the Observer does an excellent job at helping them understand the university's position on important matters.

“Furthermore,” Pearson says, “by the time they get the Observer, they've often formed impressions based on stories they're read or heard elsewhere.”

Almost two and a half years after his appointment was announced, the report noted, only 59 percent of alumni are able to name Gerhard Casper as Stanford's president and a third are not aware of any budget cuts that have taken place at Stanford in the past few years.

“Those who have a clear idea of Casper's goals and priorities have a much more positive perceptions about the university, but among alumni who can name Casper, almost as many say they have only a vague idea or no idea of his goals and priorities (45 percent) as say they have a very or fairly clear idea of his goals and priorities (55 percent),” Pearson said.

“Stanford must more effectively communicate its accomplishments and goals as well as its needs and challenges. We may be missing an opportunity unique to a time of transition. For the most part, the positive developments of the past two years are not registering with alumni.

“Stanford,” he added, “would benefit from a comprehensive and coordinated communications strategy that articulates clear and consistent messages with alumni interests clearly in mind.”

Solicitation strategies

Beyond improving alumni engagement and communications, the report suggests that Stanford could improve its appeals by presenting the arguments that were most persuasive to alumni.

“The most persuasive arguments were those that suggest what alumni contributions enable Stanford to do for others,” Pearson said.

On the other hand, almost half of all non-donors and lapsed donors said the single most convincing argument for not donating to Stanford was the feeling that their money would have “a greater impact on smaller, more local organizations.”

The feeling that “Stanford is wealthy and doesn't need my money as much as other organizations do” played a big role in the decisions of almost a third of the lapsed and non-donors, and the argument that “Stanford can always count on its wealthiest alumni to give major gifts” played an important role for a quarter of the lapsed and non-donors.

Such feelings were particularly prevalent among alumni who graduated after 1965, the study found.

“Younger alumni tend to 'think globally and act locally' because they can support large-scale goals yet see relatively immediate results,” the report notes. “Moreover, the organizations to which they give money are selected, in the words of one focus group participant, on a 'triage basis' - they give where they think their (sometimes limited) dollars will have the greatest effect.”

Older alumni - those who graduated before 1965 - said they too were deterred from giving to Stanford by doubts about the impact of their donations. But a significant minority of the older alums also said they withheld contributions because they feel “Stanford has abandoned the values” they support.

Thirty percent of older alumni surveyed said this plays a very or fairly big role in their decisions, compared to only 10 percent of alumni who graduated in 1965 or after.

“It is important to understand, however, that few alumni - regardless of age - oppose [such things as] diversity or multicultural studies,” the report notes. “Most alumni appreciate that the world is changing and recognize that Stanford must change with it. What they want is reassurance that Stanford is managing the changes in a thoughtful and judicious fashion, and not just reacting to political whim - and this message is as important to younger alumni as it is to older alumni.”

To improve the overall donor rate, the report suggests that while fundraising appeals to alumni of all ages should present the same basic case, different points should be emphasized.

Appeals to the younger alumni, it said, must “make a compelling argument for the urgency of Stanford's needs and emphasize the direct impact even the smallest gifts can have on both the university and its ability to effect change in society, through continued leadership in medicine, science, humanities and technology.”

Appeals to older alumni must make the same case - “while also reassuring them that Stanford has not drifted from its institutional or ethical moorings.”

"Given older alumni's positive response to Stanford President Gerhard Casper (almost half rate their impressions of him as very positive, compared to 38 percent of younger alumni), it may be advisable to make the new administration the theme of the appeal," the report said.

“The message must not be simply that a new administration has arrived, but that its initial assessment has been completed and a new course is being set. . . . The appeal should make it clear that the current administration recognizes and is sensitive to the feelings and concerns of alumni, and that their gifts can directly help Stanford achieve a revitalized agenda while sustaining responsible fiscal stewardship.”

The report recommends that the university continue to promote events and activities, such as reunion homecoming weekend, that give alumni a meaningful voice and make them feel important to the university.

“Those who agree that Stanford makes them feel important respond more favorably to every argument for giving and are less influenced by every argument for not giving," the report notes.

“If the experience a student has at Stanford is our 'product,' then alumni relations can be likened to 'customer service.' Just as consumers are demonstrating greater loyalty to products and services that offer the added value of superior post-purchase support, alumni who feel that they still matter to Stanford are much more likely to be loyal donors.”

Finally, the report recommends a longer range study “to identify what components of a Stanford education are most important to satisfaction, and create for students as rewarding an experience as possible - because those who most value their Stanford education want to be donors, while others must be convinced.”

“It becomes comes clear,” Peeps said, “that there are many campus organizations that have a vital role to play in the alumni participation challenge, ranging from those responsible for students' experiences in and out of the classroom to offices like the News Service and the Alumni Association, as well as the Office of Development.

“The survey for the first time makes it clear how important it is that those pieces be regarded as a whole, and that they be thoughtfully tied together.”



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