Alumni are vital to the ongoing success of higher education institutions’ programs, fundraisers, and communities. Whether they donate on your annual giving day, volunteer to run an event, or spread the word about your school’s scholarship offerings, alumni are invaluable resources for your school.
Any time alumni donate to your institution, whether they contribute their time or money, it’s important to acknowledge them and make them feel appreciated. Even alumni who don’t explicitly donate deserve some recognition, too, for their contribution to the community through their attendance to your school. Overall, effective alumni appreciation encourages alumni to get involved, brings alums together, and creates a more vibrant community.
At Eleven Fifty Seven, we know how important it is to properly acknowledge your key supporters. Over the years, we’ve learned the most effective methods of supporter appreciation, strategies that lead to increased engagement and retention. For your institution’s alumni, we recommend that you show your appreciation in the following ways:
- Letters, cards, and/or emails
- Public recognition
- Naming opportunities
- Alumni appreciation week
With your alumni properly recognized for their contributions to your school’s community, you’ll secure their long-term support and encourage future involvement. Let’s dive in.
1. Letters, cards, and/or emails
Communicating your appreciation to alumni with letters, cards and emails is a classic approach. Your school likely already sends some sort of communication containing a thank-you message after your alumni donate or volunteer. You might send a letter of thanks (virtual or otherwise) after an alum:
- Attends an event
- Offers to interview candidates for admission
- Makes a donation
- Hosts an alumni get-together
Thank-you messages following a contribution of time or money from your alumni is necessary to express your gratitude and reward the alum’s generosity. According to Donorsearch’s guide to alumni giving, 74% of alumni donors prefer some form of personal “thank-you” for their contribution. If you want alums to continue to engage with your school and alumni association, you need to tell them when they’ve done something you appreciate.
Still, there are other reasons to express appreciation for your alumni. Have you considered reaching out to alumni on significant dates, like birthdays and holidays? Surely any alum would appreciate a reminder that their alma mater is thinking of them at special times of year. This type of communication that isn’t directly related to an action on the alum’s part goes a long way to establish a genuine relationship with alumni, rather than a transactional one.
Even better, incorporate handwritten or hand-signed notes into this strategy to maximize personalization and make your alumni feel extra special. For more significant donors, for example, you might have higher-up school administrators and officials sign the card, indicating just how much your school appreciates the support.
Gifts are a wonderful way to provide a tangible token of your school’s appreciation for your alumni. After all, isn’t it always exciting to receive a package in the mail? A gift will almost certainly elicit positive reactions from alumni far and wide.
You may choose to give branded or unbranded gifts. Branded gifts are those that display your school’s name and logo, which may be particularly appealing to alumni, as they presumably take pride in their association with their alma mater. Branded merchandise can encompass everything from a keychain to a silk scarf. You’ll just need to choose the appropriate gift to recognize the alumni’s level of involvement, volunteerism, or contribution.
For example, you may choose to use the following branded merchandise as gifts for alumni appreciation:
- Stickers or car magnets
- Stuffed mascots
- Key chains
- Mugs or water bottles
- Leather-bound notebook or padfolio
Unbranded gifts might be reserved for more significant donors or volunteers, and could include treats like food baskets, bottles of wine, or gift certificates.
Consider how you’ll use gifts in your alumni appreciation strategy. You might choose to thank an alum for a donation with a goody bag of branded items. Alternatively, you could send alumni a small gift on their birthday each year to remind them of their positive experience at your school and keep your school top of mind.
3. Appreciation events
A vibrant alumni community relies on the ability of your alums to come together, network, and build rapport with one another. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events have largely been curtailed, but virtual events have persisted. Consider launching the following virtual alumni appreciation events:
- Happy hours. Virtual alumni appreciation happy hours might highlight significant donors and other important alumni contributors, plus provide an opportunity for alums to chat in a casual environment and get to know each other.
- Workshops/classes. Offering useful, relevant workshops and classes to express gratitude for your alumni is a good choice, as alumni will appreciate the content of the classes as well as the effort to acknowledge them. Workshops for new grads, for example, might focus on financial literacy, while professional development classes with prominent speakers for more seasoned alums may be the right choice.
- Virtual luncheons/dinners. While you likely won’t be gathering in person for a meal just yet, as this guide discusses, many traditional in-person events like meals can be successfully shifted to the virtual sphere. Consider providing alums with a food-ordering gift certificate (available upon registration for the event) that they can use to order lunch or dinner before your virtual gathering.
Appreciation events kill two birds with one stone by providing acknowledgment and appreciation and strengthening ties to your school’s community.
4. Public recognition
There are some alumni who are more involved in your school’s programs and activities than others. Major donors, veteran volunteers, and essential players in local alumni associations who have contributed significantly to your school deserve to be publicly recognized in front of their peers for their contributions. Tip: Make sure to check with alumni before you use this alumni appreciation strategy—the last thing you want to do is catch an alum off guard with a public mention they didn’t approve.
There are several ways to recognize significant alumni in public, including:
- On a web page or microsite. A dedicated page on your school’s website that lists important alumni figures and their contribution is a low-effort way to publicly acknowledge them.
- Social media mentions. Did a specific alum significantly contribute to a recent event, initiative, or campaign? Consider using social media to recognize them for their efforts.
- A donor recognition wall or plaque. Donor recognition walls are meaningful, semi-permanent installations designed to recognize important supporters. Digital recognition walls are also a great option—they allow a little more flexibility if you anticipate wanting to change out the names on the wall in the near future. Our Eleven Fifty Seven guide to donor recognition walls can provide some inspiration for your endeavors!
- Alumni appreciation awards. Awards for particularly involved, successful, or generous alumni are sure to have an impact. Consider designing a few awards to give out annually to key supporters and spreading the word on social media channels when there’s a new recipient.
Public recognition of key alumni not only expresses your genuine gratitude for their efforts, but can also serve to incentivize involvement from other alums who witness their peers’ generosity.
5. Naming opportunities
Naming opportunities should be reserved for your school’s most significant donors. For example, a major donor to your capital campaign may be deserving of a naming opportunity. Some common features named after alumni are:
- Halls/wings of buildings
- Benches/landscape features
Naming a part of your campus or a financial resource after an alum is a highly significant donor recognition gesture that your most generous alums deserve. To incentivize giving to a capital campaign, for example, you might have the naming opportunities ready to offer to your major donors during the campaign’s quiet phase. Doing so can incentivize your major donors to give generously.
6. Alumni appreciation week
An alumni appreciation week is a popular choice for recognizing alumni. This approach allows your school to combine several of the aforementioned appreciation ideas, like events, gifts, public recognition, and appreciation messages. Having a designated day, week or weekend reserved for alumni appreciation can go a long way to make your alumni feel acknowledged and appreciated.
Plus, alumni appreciation that is targeted over a specific time frame means you’ll have an important initiative to market and build momentum around, increasing participation and event attendance. Check out Saint Michael College’s 2021 alumni appreciation week schedule for inspiration about what to include in yours. Here’s some of what they offered this year:
- Spirit day with social media posts
- 5K virtual race
- Trivia night with prizes
You might also consider offering alums a discount on official school merchandise during alumni appreciation week (or weekend). Whatever you choose to offer your alumni, they’re sure to appreciate the school’s effort to draw attention to their contributions to the community.
Alumni appreciation is an important aspect of higher education fundraising and community-building. Not only does effective alumni appreciation increase engagement, it also leads to more funding for your institution. When you’re considering what to include in your alumni appreciation efforts, use some of these ideas to maximize your success. Best of luck!