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Love Letter to My Alma Mater

Dear Interlochen,

Thank you for a great thirtieth high school reunion!

The campus looked wonderful, something that made many of us at once envious and suspicious that life was getting too easy for the current generation. The classes and performances were exceptional, a testament not just to the talent the school is attracting but the faculty you are retaining. And socializing with old classmates was, as they say in the TV ad, priceless.

Of course, one of the moments we all dread at any reunion is when we are cornered in a room and asked for money. No matter how much we love the place—and with Interlochen the alumni love is palpable—the fundraising experience can be awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.

Except for one thing: We were never asked to give.

Now, I know that Interlochen needs our money. You told us that quite clearly in a detailed presentation by the president. We also learned how little our classes had given. And how small the level of overall alumni giving was to the school. Much of this was a shock to many of the alumni who attended. But we weren’t provided with the unique medicine that helps get over that shock.

So, here is a prescription from your friendly alumnus fundraising doctor to help alumni move from confused to enthused at the next reunion…and to raise more money for Interlochen, too!

1) When reunion attendees arrive and register, allow the registrants to determine what is on their badges. This year’s badges provided a name, class year and major while at school. While I am proud of my “Creative Writing” alumni status, I wouldn’t introduce myself that way today. At a minimum, give alumni the opportunity to define themselves, even if that includes both a past major and current occupation.

2) Provide badge stickers honoring involvement. These might include stickers reading “donor,” “class chair” and “planned giving society member.” These acknowledge attendee involvement and encourage others to follow suit.

3) In the registration packet, include a preprinted envelope with the registrant’s name, cumulative giving, last gift amount and date. Also include a separate flier talking up the important “all alumni” event (where the “pitch” will occur). Encourage attendees to bring the packet with them throughout the reunion by including items they will likely want or need throughout the weekend.

4) Early on in the weekend, seek out and personally acknowledge each and every donor at the reunion and talk with them for a few minutes to ensure their donor relationship is progressing well and all their needs and expectations are being met. Listen. And follow up, too.

5) At various events during the weekend, acknowledge alumni volunteers specifically by name and activity. Make them feel important and special and provide an example for others.

6) Attend both staff and alumni generated official activities. When you attend alumni events you demonstrate an interest in their interests and learn things you would not otherwise know. Yes, this is time consuming. But it is only one weekend per year.

7) In advance of the “pitch” event—or, better yet, in advance of the reunion—get permission from a reunion attendee to use a forthcoming gift as a challenge.

8) During the “pitch” event, have a student say a few words about how a gift to the scholarship fund has changed his or her life—this is far more powerful than any building visit or powerpoint presentation.

9) The event is also an ideal time to acknowledge donors by name in each of the classes, with special emphasis on those who belong to higher level giving societies. Thank them publicly!

10) As you prepare to “ask” at the “pitch” event, have class chairs and other acknowledged donors provide another pledge envelope to each and every attendee with a smile.

11) Close the deal. You must do more than state the case and say that support is needed. You must tell people what they need to do and how to do it. You must ask them to fill out the form and tell them you will collect it as they leave the room. Instill some friendly competition by promising details on which class gives the most, has the highest average gift and achieves the greatest participation at an event concluding the reunion.

12) Have class chairs and other alumni donors make the pitch with you so there is no question that there is already peer support.

13) Party hop. We’re all close in age now and there are no lines between administration and alumni other than those we draw. Go to where the alumni go. You just might have some fun. And learn something too. You’ll certainly break down the barrier of formality allowing a real exchange of ideas and facilitate greater giving.

14) Hold a closing event. The Alumni Recital or even the Student/Alumni Coffee House would provide exactly the kind of love fest where you could report good news on how much was raised during the weekend, thank everyone for coming and pass out forms to preregister for the next big event.

In addition to my prescription for alumni recovery and increased involvement, I also have two preventative medicine suggestions.

First, no matter how much any of the “helicopter parents,” seemingly spoiled students or ungrateful alumni may drive you crazy, please keep it to yourself. Mocking them, even if trying to elicit sympathy for the current state of educators or to inject a little humor, will always fall flat. Inevitably, when you insult one, even if unintentionally, you insult all. Remember, a number of alumni are already sending their own children to the school at great personal expense and you don’t want alumni and parents leaving campus wondering if you were talking about them!

Second, reach out more regularly and listen more actively. The staffing and resource limitations at secondary schools are legendary. The very best institutions have to think carefully about how best to use their limited time. But the only way to achieve greater fundraising success with alumni is to get to know those who have the ability and interest to give. While that process can be aided by research, it is always in the end a matter of staff calling and talking with alumni.

Alumni should not be responsible for reaching out to their alma maters to express interest in volunteering and giving. The schools must open that door in order to make the experience of giving as comfortable and fulfilling as revisiting the campuses we called home so many years ago.

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