Donor Demographics are the Enemy of Equity

Not too long ago, a client asked me to create an age, gender, and ethnic profile of alumni most likely to donate to the university. I refused.

Why?

In an era of resource constraint, advancement shops are keen to spend time and money on the low hanging fruit. Thoughts of segmenting alumni according to identifiable characteristics might seem like a good strategy, something like: “Let’s figure out who donates most and work to cultivate gifts from people who look or act like them.” That’s all well and good until age, gender, and race are thrown into the mix, because with demographic variables like these, whole groups of graduates are bound to be excluded, and so too their voice in shaping the philanthropic priorities of their alma mater.

Let me explain.

Chasing donor demographics shapes institutions in unforeseen ways, amplifying the preferences of the few into priorities for the many.

Although segmenting alumni into demographic groups for solicitation is commonplace, the makeup of the American college graduate from which such groups are selected has shifted. Since 2004, the rapid increase in the number and diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity among college students has resulted in a booming alumni population that is younger than older, more female than male, and boasts twice the number of graduates of color than a generation prior. The geographic origin of the next generation of college graduates is changing too, becoming less regional and more national and global in scope.

As the U.S.-educated alumni base becomes more diverse and spread out, modern advancement professionals have an historic opportunity to examine internal and institutional biases by asking tough questions: 

  1. Who is and who is not giving to the school? 

  2. Is the institution doing anything in particular to discourage giving from particular groups? 

  3. Are there prospects out there who feel they do not belong as donors to their alma mater? 

  4. Is the use of demographic data in solicitation and engagement strategies leading to unintended discrimination? 

Part of this process of questioning starts with intentionally inviting people from underrepresented groups to be a part of advancement efforts and conversations at the institution.

Non-profit Executive Director and speaker Vu Le has been writing about the problems with donor demographics for years. His central thesis is that conversations with major donors often crowd out the voices of those with less means. In the world of alumni fundraising, demographic segmentation for donor appeals and major gift cultivation gives power - perhaps inadvertently - to older, whiter, predominantly male graduates who are routinely asked to volunteer, attend events, engage with, and donate to their alma mater at higher rates than their marginalized alumni peers. This is a problem and one that will take some weaning to fix.

Higher education researcher and professor Noah D. Drezner advocates for something he calls “philanthropic mirroring”, a strategy that involves tailoring alumni marketing and communications efforts according to social identities shared by alumni and current students. Drezner’s work demonstrated that appeals of this nature were quite effective in increasing donation amounts from alumni of marginalized groups and showcase how donor demographics can be used in an empowering and equitable way. Drezner points to the importance of utilizing identity-based fundraising not just to raise more gifts, but to enshrine a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice in advancement practices. 

Back to my example. 

So how would a college or university, theoretically, engage diverse alumni groups whose giving histories are unimpressive and future philanthropy unpredictable?

New research into the factors and characteristics of alumni giving has shown that measuring levels of “Alumni Identity” among graduates is an effective tactic and tool for increasing engagement and fundraising outcomes. By cultivating donations from alumni for whom the college experience was transformative, much of any demographic bias is removed, and in its place emerges a window into the alumni psyche that is quantifiable and actionable.

It is a self-perpetuating myth of the advancement profession’s own design that chasing demographics leads to increased alumni engagement and giving.  

The Alumni Identity approach invites colleges and universities to examine alumni strategies and ask: “What are we doing, perhaps even unconsciously, to either encourage or discourage groups of alumni to give or not to give?" The question may seem philosophical, but the philanthropic pay-off is palpable. 

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This piece was co-written with Chase McNamee, Doctoral Student in Higher and Postsecondary Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Editorial Assistant for Philanthropy & Education. I’m grateful to Chase for his openness to addressing the issues presented in this article in such a forthright and thoughtful fashion. As our next generation of advancement leaders emerge, we are in good hands with people like Chase. In fact, he’s just been promoted to Director of Alumni Relations at Bank Street College of Education. Congrats Chase!


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Jay Dillon