In an ideal world, alumni would recognize the benefits of career development and offer to support your programming. The reality is not far off, but it takes work to build relationships with alumni, identify their passions, and develop the right proposal to address both their philanthropic interests and your students’ needs. The University of Rochester Medical Center has successfully attracted philanthropy and shares the lessons they have learned.
It Starts with Relationships and Insight
The first relationship is internal. The office of career development and the office of advancement/major gifts need to work together. Career development teams know the student experience, including what alumni may relate to and mechanisms for programmatic improvement. The office of advancement knows how to communicate with alumni, help them clarify their goals, and build trust.
The most important relationship is with your alumni. After a demanding 5+ years, they care about their program. Find ways for them to re-engage with a newsletter, career panels, or, in the case of Vanderbilt University, a PhD student reunion. Talk to them about their memories, their interests, and how they may want to help the next generation.
Identify Alumni Interests
For PhD alumni, three obvious interests surfaced.
1. Professional and Career Development
“I wish someone had been there to help me with my career when I was a trainee.”
2. Pilot Research Funding
“When first starting on my project, I would have felt more comfortable knowing there was a small allocation of money for my initial exploratory research.”
3. Connections to recent alumni who have successful careers
“During my training, I would have liked to have met with people recently out of graduate school, so that I would get some perspective of what it’s like to be a scientist outside of school.”
Work in Stages
Start slowly to build trust and show outcomes. You can begin by creating an unrestricted annual fund for any amount. If alumni give, reach out to them to find out why and what they hope to improve.
For example, one Rochester alumna became so engaged discussing her experience as a PhD student that she decided to give a four-figure gift to her department. As the depth of conversation grew, she talked more about her legacy, which led to a six-figure gift to endow a fund to help recruit international students for graduate studies at the University of Rochester. Communication grew into stewardship. Through letters from students, conversations with the Dean, and intimate salon dinners, her interest in student career development emerged. As the alumna learned more about scientific trainee career development programs, the University of Rochester’s BEST director and the advancement office worked together to create a a formal proposal addressing the alumna’s philanthropic goals, including funding opportunities, career development programming, student photos, news articles, and student quotes. She ultimately decided to give a six-figure gift to ensure s sustainability and fund the internship program. She is planning a campus visit to deepen her relationship with her alma mater.
Attracting philanthropy takes time, but, if done well, can be beneficial to both your current students and your alumni donors.