Turning students into engaged alumni — it ain’t easy

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Giant Jenga and a live science demonstration along with free food caused students to pause in the new Science Center. Alumni engagement officer Samantha Martens announces, “Today is our second annual Day of Giving, we are trying to reach a $125,000 goal which is one dollar per square foot of this beautiful new Science Center.”

“Fun fact,” Martens says. “Tuition only covers 63 percent of the North Central College experience.” Instead of having an experience that matches tuition, the college solicits donations.

The College needs donations to fill gaps in the experience, and they are evolving in how they seek out donations and engage alumni. Development officer Kelsey Taylor explains how social media and new ways to donate have changed the Day of Giving since its inception last year with givecampus.com being one crowdfunding method employed.

Martens talks about one method her office uses to incentivize students vs. alumni — T-shirts. The “I heart NC” T-shirts are plain white and featureless apart from the logo, and typically are given away with student donations of $5 or more.These same T-shirts are offered online at a much higher cost to alumni: $500. The thinking behind this is that alumni would be donating to North Central College anyway whereas students need the extra incentive to donate.

Class gift of 1962. Photo by Bob Tomaszewski

Class gift T-shirts are $20.17. This form of low-amount donation is part of a growing trend, particularly among politicians. Bernie Sanders used relatively low donation amounts to appeal to his base, and boasted an average donation of $27, emphasizing the grassroots nature of the campaign. This same grassroots effect is what colleges are going for when trying to raise money. What colleges and universities care about more than donations is total engagement.

Alumni memorialized in landscaping. Photo by Bob Tomaszewski

According to Jared Bogan, director of alumni engagement, the rate of engagement is one of the factors when colleges are rated. He notes that it is a challenge to get the new generation involved. In order to meet people where they are, the Office of Alumni Engagement has to devote more time to Facebook and Snapchat as well as putting out a monthly newsletter.

Getting students to donate can be a challenge as seniors Rachel Bednarcik and Stephanie Passialis point out. For them, staying involved within their department is how they stay engaged. Communicating with professors may not be as easily measured as money or attendance.

“My gift was to the Dr. Sara J. Eaton Memorial Fund because she (had) a profound impact on my life while I was here as an English major, and I feel like I would want to give to something in my content area versus the general donation fund,” Bednarcik said. Bednarcik has known English professor Dr. Jennifer Jackson since she was 16 and is the reason she choose the English program at North Central College.

A recently planted lilac bush in honor of Dr. Sara J. Eaton.

“I feel really comfortable giving back to (the English department) specifically,” Passialis said. Passialis and Bednarcik note that sometimes as college students, it can be hard to donate. “You’re being asked for so much money from so many different places that it can sometimes be hard,” Passialis said.

Martens elaborates on students’ ability to do this, understanding that students are not always in a position to donate. She stresses that students should give what they can because students may not know how much a single donation means, beyond the dollar amount.

The Science Center appears to still take a central focus in the giving campaigns at North Central College. The Day of Giving was not only hosted in the new building, but featured the fundraising goal of the square footage of the facility.  There was an obvious STEM focus at the Day of Giving, hence the Jenga and science demonstration.

Photo by Bob Tomaszewski

“When we were making the decision to donate to the Dr. Sara J. Eaton Fund, there was still that pressure, like well, what about the (brilliant future campaign)” Passialis said, noting that the pressure could deter some students. To date, 37 percent of the Brilliant Future Campaign goal has been achieved. On the campaign website, words like “show your support,” “give,” and “ways to give” take prominence. At the top of the page, there is a large gray “make a gift” button. That is not to say that there isn’t information on events or other renovations taking place as part of the campaign, but it is clear that donations take the lead.

According to Peter Barger, director of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning, North Central does have some of the best alumni engagement for its size. North Central College — in maintaining engagement online — crowdsources stories of alumni success. They also allow alumni to take part in the scholarship process in a way separate from donations. Alumni are able to recommend a student to go to North Central College and give them a scholarship. This encourages prospective students to talk to alumni about attending the College.

Bogan talked about meeting people where they are, and how those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s are used to getting a monthly newsletter, so they have to do that on top of social media. Social media for the millennial generation is an interactive newsletter. It provides more opportunity for engagement.

Loyalty to one’s school remains a valuable asset for the Office of Alumni Engagement. They will continue to evolve with technology and seek out alumni to engage with the college at events. Regardless of whether or not there is a Science Center or a Brilliant Future campaign, the Day of Giving, Cornerstone and homecoming will be important events to keep people connected to North Central.

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Bob Tomaszewski is the Forum Editor for the Chronicle/NCClinked.

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