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Editorial: Shifting focus away from students to alumni will boost donations

By Editorial Board

June 7, 2017 11:03 pm

UCLA’s donation strategy involves evoking grand feelings of generosity in its alumni and students. But ask any student paying at least $13,000 in tuition to donate, and the only emotion these efforts inspire is annoyance.

The UCLA Fund is always looking for donations – as do all large-scale universities – and operates departments such as the UCLA Call Center and Student Giving Committee. These outreach attempts tend to follow the same story: Students are called by the UCLA Call Center at odd hours, the employee engages in lengthy conversation and the pleasant talk eventually gives way for pleas to donate money to the UCLA Fund.

The problem is, students are strapped enough as it is with tuition fees and living expenses, and the university isn’t helping itself with these calls. Constantly trying to solicit donations – even negligible ones – from students only turns them away from the donation process altogether.

Engaging students early on is important, but the UCLA Fund must instead focus its efforts on establishing an informative campaign that gets students more invested in their university. The focus shouldn’t be on getting students to cough up $5 here and there; rather, it should be on priming them to donate once they graduate and secure steady incomes.

The administration seems to agree: The overall goal of these efforts is to raise money and educate students about the importance of philanthropy to the university, according to Rebecca Kendall, a university spokesperson.

However, the current approach doesn’t convey that.

Students receive everything from physical fliers to emails about giving back to the university. Students are also enticed to give back through events such as UCLA Gives during I Heart UCLA week. But pestering students throughout their college careers discourages large scores of them from donating in the first place.

Just ask the numbers: In 2015, UCLA received 2,566 student donations totalling $53,952, according to Kendall. That amounts to an average donation of $21.03.

However, donations from young alumni in 2015, or those who graduated within 10 years of 2015, were far more impressive: the university cashed an average of $116.75 each from 5,783 alumni donations.

Alumni clearly donate more than students, but in smaller numbers: The number of young alumni donations was little more than double the number of student donors. The 2016 numbers aren’t much different: 1,882 students donated a total of $50,110, according to Kendall, whereas 5,532 young alums donated a total of $845,471.

Considering tens of thousands of students graduated within 10 years of 2015 and 2016, these alumni donation amounts are notably dismal – a sign of alumni being turned away from donating.

UCLA needs to better motivate its future alumni to give back to the university. And that doesn’t mean badgering them from the moment they step into Westwood. It means creating a campaign that entices them to donate when they graduate. Connecting students with Alumni Center resources and advancing opportunities for alumni networking are far more likely to promote engagement and involvement with the UCLA network and achieve higher donor participation.

And sure, student donations do add up. But the university needs to decide whether it prefers moderate student donations early on or notable donations later.

Only one of those options will open up both students’ hearts and wallets.

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