Tech tool could take the guessing out of college fundraising

Alumni giving fell .4 percent in 2010, according to a recent report.

College and university fundraising officials might not have to wonder how alums feel about their alma mater thanks to a computer program that can tell just how much a former student likes or dislikes the institution.

Oregon State University (OSU) on Feb. 17 launched the Building Community Initiative (BCI), a program designed to “assesses the affinity and connection” between alumni donors and their college or university.

OSU announced that it will make the tool available to other campuses.

The fundraising tool examines four factors to determine a potential donor’s feelings toward their college and assigns a score that could help campus decision makers decide who to target during fundraising campaigns.

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“What sets this research apart from other products on the market is its ability to pinpoint how alumni and donors feel right now,” said James McAlexander, director of OSU College of Business’s Close to the Customer Project, a marketing research initiative.

McAlexander said the BCI program doesn’t just account for information available in a simple web search that provides cursory information but that stops short of giving fundraisers a good idea of a donor’s propensity to give.

“We are going to the source and using very specific questions and detailed analysis to determine an alumni or donor’s allegiance to an institution,” he said.

Computer programs that assess alums’ likelihood to contribute during fundraising campaigns are commonplace in higher education. But most of those programs, McAlexander said, assign potential donors a “wealth score” that indicates how much that person is able to give.

OSU’s technology instead measures how much an alum might approve or disapprove of their former school. The tool has proven valuable to the university’s fundraising officials.

“The BCI score tells me whether someone has high affinity towards the university rather than lukewarm affinity, so we can really prioritize those individuals that we want to reach out to first,” said Mark Koenig, senior director of advancement services for the OSU Foundation, which organizes fundraising projects.

Koenig said the BCI formula allows OSU to tell if a former student enjoyed a certain professor or degree program, but disliked the school’s sports program. That person, Koenig said, would not be solicited for a donation to a new basketball stadium.

“We were able to not only find out how well alumni liked their experience at OSU, but what their priorities are,” he said.

More targeted fundraising strategies could be timely for campuses, because alumni giving has fallen since the U.S. economy began its downturn in 2008.

Since then, colleges large and small have turned to social media outlets – primarily Twitter and Facebook – to connect with former students, rather than spending thousands on mass mailings, open houses, and traveling to meet with wealthy donors across the country.

Charitable giving dipped to never-before-seen lows in 2009, according to a report from the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), an organization that tracks educational donations nationwide.

Contributions to colleges and universities fell by 11.9 percent in 2009, according to CAE, with alumni giving dropping sharply.

The steep drop came after a decade that saw college fundraising rise by about 4 percent annually. CAE’s report showed that even the largest institutions were not immune to the economic slump that started in fall 2008: the 20 top-fundraising universities in 2009 brought in $7.3 billion, or about $1.1 billion less than in 2008.

Universities saw a fundraising increase of less than 1 percent in 2010, up to $28 billion, according to the latest CAE statistics. Still, when adjusted for inflation, 2010 higher education contributions were down 8 percent compared to 2006 levels.

Alumni fundraising participation dipped from 10 percent in 2009 to 9.8 percent in 2010, according to the report. Alumni giving fell by 0.4 percent during 2010.

The 2010 CAE report said that while “the findings are more sanguine than those of last year,” a full recovery is yet to materialize.

“As in the economy as a whole, improvements in higher education,” the report said, “giving have been incremental so far.”

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