For any higher education institution, alumni are the foundation of your support. They play a vital role in not only passing down school spirit to the next generation but also in funding campus-wide improvements for future students. 

It’s crucial to focus on connecting and building genuine relationships with your alumni. However, because every graduate’s experience with your institution is unique, this can present a challenge. For improved alumni fundraising, this guide will cover five best practices for engaging your alumni with your communication strategy: 

  1. Use data to send targeted communications 
  2. Use a multi-channel approach
  3. Incorporate storytelling into your marketing materials
  4. Share matching gift information
  5. Express appreciation for your alumni donors

By following communication best practices, you’ll see an increase in not only alumni engagement, but alumni giving as well. While every institution will need to tailor these best practices to their unique needs and alumni base, all schools focused on improving alumni fundraising and engagement can benefit from these strategies. Let’s get started. 

1. Use Data to Send Targeted Communications 

Because all of your alumni have unique giving capabilities and experiences with your school, you should be addressing them in different and more personalized ways. Donor segmentation allows you to create a communication strategy to target donors based on specific shared characteristics. This can include demographic characteristics, previous contributions to the institution, or wealth characteristics. You can also segment based on their history with the school, such as area of study or student life involvement.

In order to properly segment your donors, you’ll need both robust donor management tools and a good data hygiene strategy. Keeping your data organized and free of mistakes or duplicate entries will ensure that you can create accurate prospect portfolios.

Once you’ve segmented your donors into categories, you can begin tailoring your communications to fit your stewardship strategies. For instance, create different communication streams for different segments based on factors like whether they’re first-time donors, top prospects for major gifts, or frequent event attendees.

2. Use a Multi-Channel Approach 

Not all of your donors respond to the same type of messaging, which is why it’s best to use a mutli-channel approach for communications with alumni. By using different communication channels, each with a tailored approach, you can reach as many alumni as possible and have a higher chance of connecting with them. A few types of channels you can use include:  

  • Email campaigns. Using action-triggered email drip campaigns can help you effectively steward different segments of your alumni audience into a next step, like setting up recurring gifts, increasing their giving level, or getting their gift matched.
  • Phone calls. Especially for older alumni and alumni you’ve met in person before, a phone call can still be an extremely effective way to connect on a personal level. 
  • Direct mail. Event invites, branded alumni gear or giveaways, and brochures or magazines with institution updates can make great mailers. 
  • Social media. An increasing portion of your alumni base is on social media so you should be too! This is a great place to share updates about the institution and highlight notable alumni, as well as event recaps. 
  • Your website. Your website should have a page dedicated to alumni relations so that all alumni can easily find the information they need about alumni events, donating, and accessing alumni benefits and resources. 

Combining a handful of channels into a coherent digital campaign will help you get the best results from your multi-channel marketing strategy. To do this successfully, choose channels based on what you know works for your target segment(s). For example, reaching out to prospective first-time alumni donors via social media, email, and direct mail, all connecting through to a well-designed donations page on your site. 

3. Incorporate Storytelling Into Your Marketing Materials

One of the benefits of working with alumni is that many of them already care deeply about your institution. While that initial connection to your mission is often already there, you still have the important task of actively fostering that relationship and bringing it to the forefront of donors’ minds. 

Incorporating a storytelling strategy into all of your marketing materials can help you capitalize on this connection and build deep and authentic relationships with your alumni. A few great ways to do this include: 

  • Sharing the story of a notable alum’s journey
  • Highlighting a student who has been helped by a donor-funded program, such as an alumni scholarship program 
  • Using a common urban legend at the university to appeal to donor’s memories 
  • Interviewing a faculty member whose class or department has benefited from donations 

These types of stories are likely everywhere you turn at your institution. Once you find a few stories that tug on your donor’s heartstrings or call back fond memories, you can start incorporating them into your marketing materials. 

4. Share Matching Gift Information

As an educational institution, it’s very likely that you’re already tracking data about the employment status of your graduates. Instead of letting this information collect dust, you should use it to help you reach your fundraising goals and ensure that no money is left on the table. 

You can do this by helping your alumni get their gifts matched. Matching gifts are a form of corporate philanthropy that gives employees the opportunity to increase their impact at a nonprofit of their choice. Often, donors are not aware of these programs or how to get their gift matched. However, through the data your institution collects about graduates and additional data collected as part of your donor qualification process, you can identify alumni who are eligible and share the necessary information with them. 

5. Express Appreciation for Your Alumni Donors

In addition to keeping your alumni updated and regularly reaching out to keep them engaged, you also need to be thanking them for their support. Whether they sign up as part of your mentor program, participate in an event, or give a donation, any amount of support that they can offer deserves a thank you. 

There are many different ways to show appreciation for your donors, and the most appropriate method will depend greatly on the context of their giving. For example, a thank you email, phone call, or physical letter should be standard for anyone who donates, but you might go the extra mile and engrave a plaque on campus with the name of a major donor. 

It’s important to create a standardized strategy for recognizing donors at different giving levels as well as alumni who get involved in other non-monetary ways. Their time and effort can be just as valuable and should never be overlooked. 

Your alumni are an important part of both creating a lasting community at your institution and funding the development of your institution, which is why it’s so important to form genuine connections with your alumni. The best way to do this is through focused and strategic communication methods that bring your alumni community closer together and encourage donations. 


Aaron Dahlstrom

Aaron Dahlstrom

Aaron Dahlstrom is the Vice President of Digital Marketing at Graham-Pelton. Creative and considerate, Aaron plans and executes Graham-Pelton’s presence across all digital mediums, ensuring that those who invest their time engaging with the firm experience the timely thought leadership and bold approach audiences have come to appreciate.