Black Holes and Myths in Alumni Fundraising

There’s a black hole lurking in higher education fundraising and its gravity is growing stronger.

Fed by three pervasive myths, the black hole is swallowing potential gifts at a time when institutions can ill-afford missed opportunities for philanthropy.


For too long, advancement operations have relied on alumni Age, Class Year, and Proximity to Campus to segment graduates for annual fund appeals and major gift portfolios.

In the digital age—where attention is the currency of engagement—standard advancement operating procedure (i.e., focusing on older alumni from reunion years who live near the campus) is no longer producing the frequency of giving that schools once enjoyed just 20 years ago (CASE, 2014).

New research into the antecedents of alumni connectedness and giving has called into question the value of alumni demographics in predicting broad-based engagement and donations among graduates (Dillon, 2017), demonstrating, even, that a social media engagement can be just as impactful for alumni as attending an event in-person.

So where should modern advancement professionals identify engagement opportunities and focus their fundraising energies? What are some of the direct actions institutions can take to increase alumni levels of engagement and giving?

Before answering these questions, a simple reframing of the alumni to alma mater relationship is necessary. In twenty-first century higher education fundraising, what matters most is how alumni think of themselves in relation to their school, not how institutions categorize and think of them.

The Lens of Alumni Role IdentityAlumni Identity Logo: graduation cap with person silhouette

One new way to define and measure this relationship is through the lens of Alumni Role Identity (“alumni identity”). Different from alumni affinity, alumni identity is a measure of how deeply a graduate’s connection to their alma mater manifests in their own self-concept (Dillon, 2017; McDearmon, 2011, 2013).

Alumni identity offers advancement professionals new insights into who graduates are as persons and what an institution can do to influence the philanthropic inclination alumni feel for their alma mater. Alumni who identify with their institution are more engaged.

If escaping the black hole of alumni demographics sounds appealing, take the first step in measuring and influencing alumni identity by downloading the new eBook Busting 3 Massive Myths in Higher Education Fundraising: What’s Wrong and How Alumni Identity Offers a Way Forward, published by

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The post Black Holes and Myths in Alumni Fundraising originally appeared in the Campus Sonar Brain Waves blog.