If you’re not online, you’re not in the game. A major missed opportunity within advancement in higher education is providing donors with an engaging online giving experience. Giving is an emotional transaction and philanthropy is the journey towards that transaction. Online giving presents a crucial component of the donor’s giving journey especially in an age where 60% of donors in North America prefer to make their donations online (Global Trends in Giving Report, 2018).

So what are our young alumni looking for from their online giving experience?

1. Connection to a Cause

The days of making general asks on behalf of the institution are coming to an end. To engage young alumni, institutions must now identify specific causes and designations that millennial donors are passionate about. Pfeffer-Merrill (2018) makes an important point that young donors are more responsive to cause-based marketing than any generation we have seen. The proof is in the numbers! 90% of millennials are more likely to switch to a different brand if it supports a cause they are passionate about (Pfeffer-Merrill, 2018).

What does this mean for online giving?

To provide an engaging and action provoking online giving experience, we must connect our alumni to a cause. Funds and designations must be built around the problem they are seeking to solve rather than project-based. Further, within the online giving experience these funds must be SEARCHABLE. This means creating a database of funds within your website and tagging them by the cause they support to create a user-friendly experience.

So now you have created a mechanism within your online giving journey and connected your prospective donor to a cause–yes, at this point in the journey they are still prospective. Sometimes we forget that our alumni are not sold on giving simply because they’ve landed on our giving page, there is still work to be done! Which brings us to the next key element…

2. Impact Transparency

What even is impact transparency and what does it have to do with online giving? Impact transparency is conceptually pretty simple–being transparent about the impact an action will have. In practice, especially during the online giving journey, it can be a challenge. However, it is a challenge that we must take on if we ever hope to capture young alumni or, as Fidelity Charitable’s The Future of Philanthropy report puts it, the “impact generation”.

Here’s a great example of why impact transparency is so critical; Martin (2017) describes an experience from a young alumna from Augustana College:

‘“It would never cross my mind to give to my school. If I can only give $100, you get to see that go so much farther with a smaller, more localized cause. If you give $100 to a school you might get a thank you note. It almost feels like giving your money to the mall.”’

This is a large barrier higher education is faced with due to their sheer size, but it is one that can be overcome through a strategic approach to online giving. Online giving is not merely about flexibility and convenience, although these are important factors, it is about fully shifting the giving model to provide donors with an immersive and impactful giving experience. This is about using emotional visuals to connect donors to their impact throughout the giving experience.

Dynamic web content can create an impactful emotional response. One of my favourite charitable organizations, Charity Water, does a phenomenal job of creating such an experience for their online donors.

Charity Water displays their progress towards their cause using concrete stats.
Photo courtesy of Charity Water: https://my.charitywater.org/projects

They even have content built into their site that as you change the dollar amount you’re considering donating, it pre-populates how many people will receive clean water as a result of that gift. How impactful is that?! To capture young alumni and millennial donors through our online giving experience, we must leverage the technology we have available to us.

Now we have connected our prospective donor to cause, created an impact-transparent, emotional giving journey which has transitioned them into an actual donor. Does the online giving experience end here? Nope, we still have more to do…

3. Social Sharing

Our goal isn’t merely to have our young alumni make an incredible choice to give their hard-earned funds to their alma mater only for us to say “Thanks for that, see ya later!”. Our job now is to provide an outlet for these alumni to align their philanthropic support with their social identities. Millennials invest a lot of time into building their social identity so providing a mechanism where they can share their donations and impact with their peers is critical (Carpenter, 2018).

This brings us to social sharing!

Pretty simple concept with huge implications for your institution’s social reach and the satisfaction of your millennial donors. I’ve had good success with using ShareThis as an easy and free approach, but if you can find a way to incorporate dynamic content into this as well, even better. For example, “I just donated $x to support clean sustainable groundwater research through the University of Guelph’s G360 Groundwater Research Institute“. NOTE: The cause comes before the institution.

While this may not be a comprehensive list of all the elements of a winning online giving experience, these are 3 research-informed elements that are a great start to improving your digital engagement strategy for young alumni donors.

I would love to hear more thoughts from you on your experiences at your own institutions, comment below!    


Carpenter, A. (2018). Online giving and millennials: What makes them donate? Creative Science. Retrieved from https://creativescience.co/online-giving-and-millennials-what-makes-them-donate/

Martin, J. (2017, April 24). 3 strategies for connecting your millennial alumni to a cause. Retrieved from https://www.eab.com/blogs/advancement/2017/04/3-strategies-for-connecting-your-millennial-alumni-to-a-cause

Pfeffer Merrill, J. (2018). Three Ways to Reach Those Elusive Millennial Donors. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 65:7, 25-27. Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/section/About-the-Chronicle/83


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