On the one hand, now is a great time for large gifts and restricted support for raising money in higher education. On the other hand, there is a downward trend in general support and broad-based alumni giving participation—and it hasn’t hit bottom yet. Over the past decade or so, meteoric growth in both the number of nonprofits competing for philanthropic dollars and the number of degrees conferred has conspired to make this trend feel insurmountable. It really is the perfect storm.

To reverse it, development leaders have tried nearly everything. They have pitted graduating classes against each other in virtual alumni participation cage matches. They have stuffed a purple pig with loose change. Some colleges and universities have found limited success through these tactics, but their overall efforts haven’t been sustainable. Nearly all have met the same fate as Sisyphus, the Greek king eternally doomed to roll a stone up a hill without ever quite reaching the top.

Could it be that our alumni simply don’t love us as much as they used to? Our survey data tells us that this is an unlikely explanation, despite younger generations’ increased debt loads and the corresponding impact on giving. Nationally, 88% of alumni describe their attitude toward their alma mater as positive, leaving many of our clients to wonder, “Where is the disconnect between the heart and the wallet?”

Raising money in higher education - Alumni Participation vs. Alumni Sentiment

To solve a problem of this magnitude, let’s take a lesson from what does work in our organizations. Studying our approach to major gift work—the area in which we’ve made the most advances over the past decade—might provide the right insight for a possible solution.

At the core of major gift officers’ work is building relationships. When a relationship is formed, both parties receive something of value. This bond enhances feelings of commitment that extend beyond affinity alone and provide the necessary building blocks to motivate a gift. While we’ve gotten the formula right for larger gifts, developing individualized relationships with a broad-based audience is simply not scalable. Despite our best efforts, replicating the one-on-one relationship on a one-to-many scale has largely eluded us.

Where do we go wrong with alumni relations and general support for annual giving? One issue may be that we are missing a key element about what makes people tick. We look to build relationships more broadly by raising general support: we implement a senior gift program or galvanize the masses through a new gift matching program. This might increase the number of gifts we receive, at least initially, but it still feels very transactional for the donor. In the end, we still don’t build something that feels like a relationship.

With recent technological advances, however, building “relationships” is easier than it used to be. As Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” This is where social sentiment listening and custom marketing, techniques that for-profit companies often use, come in. Showing individual interest in your broad base of donors may sound overwhelming, but its potential impact is profound. According to Demand Metric, a marketing research and advisory firm, 90% of consumers say they find custom content useful. The future of marketing is in custom marketing, which gives consumers the perception that they have a relationship with a company.

How does it work? There are currently technologies that listen to what constituents say about your institution and their interactions with it via hashtags and mentions. That information can be rated as a positive or negative message and can be used, in conjunction with your CRM, to feed digital marketing solutions that can be customized—or at least feel customized—to a prospective donor.

If you aren’t sold on this idea, realize that if you shop online, you are sold on it. Amazon routinely collects data about its customers’ purchases and uses this information to customize their marketing. In my case, I’m reminded monthly that “it’s time to buy more diapers.” With one click, I can replenish my supply without having to remember it myself.

Amazon is not the only company that implements these types of practices. The company I buy my razors from knows how frequently I buy them and recommends shave creams I should use based on my buying habits, helping me to discover new favorites. Almost all online purchases leave some trail using technology like cookies to pump ads that align with the things you like. Have you ever shopped for, say, shoes online and then for days noticed shoe ads that seem to follow you from site to site? The list of companies that leverage these practices goes on.

The trick will be translating these practices to higher education by leveraging existing data to make your constituents feel like they have an ongoing relationship with your organization. There are several companies working on doing just that. While higher education may be slower than for-profit companies to adopt new technology, we believe this is only a matter of time. Tactics like these may not build a relationship in the true sense of the word, but they may have the potential to create value for institutions and for donors. While untested, we believe these tactics will make their way into higher education soon and those battling continuously declining participation rates should be motivated to try new things.

This week’s Wake-Up Call is brought to you by Xerox.