Alumni Giving

November 1, 2001       Todd Cohen      

Only 8 percent of its 65,000 living alumni contribute to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The school generates between $7 million and $8 million annually from alumni, parents and other “friends,” and has raised more than $37 million in the quiet phase 9 of a planned $100 million capital campaign.

Now, school officials aim to nearly double the percentage of alumni who contribute, and to increase support from other donors.

The difference, said Tom Martz, vice chancellor for university relations, will be a new marketing effort to build relationships with alumni and others by using email and the Web to deliver news and information tailored to their individual interests.

“You can’t have good giving to the institution unless there’s a strong relationship that exists between the alumni, or even the parent or friend, and the university,” he said. “Increased giving is going to be an outcome of this.”

UNC-Charlotte has hired Seurat Company, a consulting firm in Waltham, Mass., to create a marketing strategy and customize a relationship management tool it has developed for its commercial clients.

The school is the first nonprofit client of the firm, which will apply lessons it has learned working with commercial clients to acquire new customers, strengthen ties with existing customers and retain them for future business.

The key, said Jerry Tylman, a Seurat managing director based in Charlotte, is to create a “virtuous circle of trust-building — acquiring knowledge about customers, using that knowledge to create branded personalized experiences” and, in the process, creating trust.

Companies can measure trust based on purchases, repeat purchases and “sharing by the customer of more information that the company can use to personalize and craft experiences geared to you,” he said. “Trust is not just the fact that you buy from me,” he said. “Trust is the fact that you share information about yourself with me that allows me to do a better job of serving you.”

After analyzing gift-giving rates at major universities and finding them to be modest at best, Tylman concluded that even small increases in those rates could quickly generate big increases in contributed dollars, and fuel huge increases over the long term as alumni get older and make bigger donations.

At UNC-Charlotte, for example, which produces 2,000 graduates a year and expects enrollment to grow to 25,000 by 2010 from 18,300 now, most alumni are only 22 to 40 years old. Yet, universities miss a great opportunity to connect with most alumni by cultivating mainly those donors likely to make big gifts, Tylman said.

He said the strategy would be to tap “a small portion of the mountain of content” that UNC-Charlotte has in the form of articles, publications, papers and knowledge, and customize it for alumni and others based on what it knows and they are willing to share about their jobs, families and hobbies.

Seurat sent a team of three people to UNC-Charlotte for several weeks this past summer to identify available content, and then “tag” it by category.

Using mail, email, telephone calls and reunions, as well as other events and forms of communication, the school in September started asking alumni and donors for information about themselves, and for permission to send them email messages with content geared to their individual interests. Those email messages, in turn, will direct people to a Web site featuring content tailored to their individual interests.

Based on the initial effort, the school hopes to transfer to its own staff much of the work of continuing the relationship-building strategy. The school also hopes to serve as a pilot for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, Martz said.

Tylman said the strategy is designed to help schools build long-term relationships with “customers” by delivering content that helps them continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. “The essence of relationships is that there is a two-way transfer of value,” he said, “and I believe a lot of people don’t give gifts because they don’t see any value beyond the warm fuzzy feeling associated with giving.”

Targeting volunteers online
Local United Ways and volunteer centers throughout the United States soon will be offered a Web-based tool to connect volunteers and nonprofits through a deal being negotiated among three big national charities. The tool already is being used by United Ways in 10 cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, and by 12 universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and the University of Texas, said its creator, Michael Bryzek, executive director of Volunteer Solutions in Harvard, Mass.

Bryzek, who created the tool in 1997 as an undergraduate studying computer science at the MIT in Cambridge, Mass., has agreed to sell the product to the United Way of America.

And, the United Way now is in “serious negotiations” with the Points of Light Foundation and the Volunteer Center National Network “to work together to provide this to volunteer centers and local United Ways throughout the United States,” said Jim Yu, vice president for Internet strategies at the United Way of America.

The tool, known as Volunteer Solutions, lets nonprofits submit volunteer opportunities, news, calendar items and other information to volunteer Web sites run by local United Ways and volunteer centers. Visitors to the sites can communicate by email with agencies needing volunteers.

By letting agencies manage information on their volunteer sites, the tool gives staffs of United Ways and volunteer centers more time to work with individual agencies to strengthen their volunteer programs, said Rhonda Johnson, director of e-community for the United Way of America. Bryzek, who helped coordinate student volunteer programs while at MIT, initially developed Volunteer Solutions for local universities based on a suggestion by students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. A business plan he wrote to create a nonprofit to market Volunteer Solutions is the only nonprofit initiative ever to win MIT’s coveted Entrepreneurial Competition.

The emerging partnership involving United Way of America began at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, which was Volunteer Solutions’ first United Way partner.

The tool has attracted about 3,000 unique visitors a month at the United Way in Boston, up from 50 referrals a month that it handled before adopting the tool, said Johnson, the Boston group’s former senior director of volunteer resources.

In Philadelphia, the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania used Volunteer Solutions to launch volunteerway.org this summer in partnership with 12 local United Ways and five other volunteer centers in the Delaware Valley, said Donald Campbell, vice president and chief information officer.

The Philadelphia United Way has waived fees for the tool, which is supported by corporate sponsorships.

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Nonprofitxpress, an online newspaper at www.npxpress.com. He can be reached at tcohen@ajf.org