Nonprofit beneficiaries can be an excellent source of donations, but little is understood about their true value. Recent research among university alumni however is a pointer to the impact that beneficiaries can make. Dr Kym Madden reports.

Nonprofit beneficiaries can be an excellent source of donations, but little is understood about their true value. Recent research among university alumni however is a pointer to the impact that beneficiaries can make. Dr Kym Madden reports.

Fundraisers know that those who have benefited from their organisation can be their greatest supporters. Direct experience of an organisation, whether in the arts, in health or education, can deeply imprint its work and value to the community far more than a media campaign ever could.

One of the most famous examples of this was the large donation by Kerry Packer to enable ambulances to carry defibrillators after he was revived by the life-giving equipment following a heart attack at a polo match.

Yet the philanthropic potential of beneficiaries is easily overlooked in the broad effort to cultivate donors. A recent study though by Catherine MacNeill and colleagues at Canadian firm Engagement Analysis, clearly shows the positive impact that beneficiaries can have on a nonprofit.

MacNeill’s study focused on university alumni. “We’ve moved away from the traditional benchmarking approach which compares ‘inputs’ such as staff numbers, salaries, and expertise, to more directly consider the contribution of alumni to the institution,” said MacNeill.

“While some newer benchmarking studies measure ‘outputs’ such as attendance at events or website visits, rarely do they focus on ‘impacts’ or outcomes achieved with stakeholders, as this study did.”

The project offers robust findings from more than 80,000 alumni across 25 Canadian universities. Over 100 questions were asked across three areas:

Reputation – participants’ satisfaction with their academic experience, the value placed on extracurricular experience, awareness of their alma mater’s reputation and degree of pride in their association with it. Relationships – if they keep informed of what’s going on at the university, participation in activities, perceived opportunities to participate, and willingness to participate. Results – their awareness of needs, the perceived impact of gifts, if they give regular support, and if they give support to the best of their capacity.

Based on all their responses, participants were given a single overall score -‘engaged’ alumni are those who scored 4.5 or higher (6 being the maximum), while the ‘somewhat engaged’ scored between 2.5 and 4.5 and the ‘disengaged’ under 2.5.

Engaged alumni the greatest supporters

Unequivocally, the study showed that more in the engaged group give. A massive 43% of those rated 5 or higher for engagement gave to their alma mater, compared to just 18% of those rated a 3, and 8.1% of those rated 1.

Similarly, the more engaged you are, the more you give. Those rated 5 or higher also gave larger amounts, with an average lifetime gift of $562, compared to $120 for those rated a 3, and just $29 for those rated 1.

The more engaged you are, the more you promote. Eighty-four per cent of the engaged group strongly agreed that they would recommend the university to others, falling to 42% for the somewhat engaged group and under 2% for the disengaged.

Engaged alumni also participated at a higher level, such as offering themselves for committees, acting as mentors, giving advice, opening doors and helping with fundraising campaigns.

“The study proves the value of an engaged alumni,” said MacNeill.

Where to from here? While some factors are independent of successful alumni relations programs – for example, older, larger institutions have a higher percentage of engaged alumni, and the smaller the city, the better – fine-tuning to the needs of one’s own beneficiary constituency is recommended.

“Universities need to know what their own alumni think, and want,” said MacNeill.

Case study: QUT seeks alumni opportunities

In a bid to learn more about its alumni, with a view to taking its alumni relations program to the next level, Queensland University of Technology’s Julie Mannion recently commissioned an extensive survey of alumni.

“The aim was to provide the platform for forward planning,” she said. “We are at a stage in our evolution as a university that we are ready to engage at a new level with our alumni.”

The research was also expanded to include an audit of the university’s own ‘readiness’ to expand its alumni program, through interviews across its faculties.

Its online survey of some 2,300 alumni in Australia and overseas, conducted over four months in late 2009, showed the opportunities that exist.

The survey gave needed data on alumni contributions to the institution, including:

90% of its alumni recommended QUT to prospective students, and 64% recommended it to employers 19% had provided work experience for students 16% had given time to QUT 16% had donated to QUT

However, 21% wanted more involvement than at present. Interest was strong in a wider range of alumni-specific activities, and news and participation at the discipline or interest level. The focus groups revealed some unique aspects of QUT alumni, and how interactions could be more relevant for alumni of different ages and circumstances, especially the retired.