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Students Giving Thanks: 5 Tips for Developing Gratitude in Your Future Alumni

By Matthew Helmer

In the education sector, contributing to a positive student experience is one of the most effective ways we can help our organizations be successful with engaging and cultivating future alumni. Building a robust student philanthropy program is one of those important-but-not-urgent activities in which our advancement shops should be investing. A coordinated approach among not just advancement, but the entire institution, is a long-term investment with tremendous potential for realizing a bright future for our organization.

I first learned what I consider perhaps the most effective model for student philanthropy from our friends at Academic Impressions, who studied successful programs and distilled their work into three fundamental building blocks that all of us can utilize:

  • Create Awareness among students of the impact of philanthropy on their experience

  • Develop Gratitude among students for the generosity of donors

  • Cultivate Giving among students by providing opportunities to give back before they become alumni

Our donor relations teams can play a leading role in supporting a culture of student philanthropy, especially through programs that educate students on the power of philanthropy and develop gratitude for the many ways donors are supporting their experience. One such program is Thank a Donor Day (or week, in some cases) in which students learn about the impact of philanthropy and are encouraged to express gratitude to donors by writing notes and/or filming videos. The Gratitude event hosted by Colorado State University’s student-led Presidential Ambassadors is nearing its 10-year anniversary and has evolved into an entire week of programming. And the University of Florida’s #GratefulGator Day has garnered national attention for their creative approach to engaging students, faculty and staff in thanking 3-5 year consecutive donors.

In the spirit of this season of thankfulness, both schools recently held their annual events, and we are sharing five tips on what has worked for us:

  • Start Small and Grow: Don’t expect your program to take over the whole school or be trending on Twitter the first time out of the gate — especially if students aren’t accustomed to hearing or talking about philanthropy. The important part is taking the first step to engage students in learning about the generosity of donors and the value of expressing gratitude for the difference they make. Be prepared for some resistance from students who may think the cost of tuition is too high and don’t view education as a “cause.” Prepare yourself to share facts about the power of philanthropy at your institution and make the program fun and engaging — even if it’s just for two hours at a table in a highly trafficked area to start.

  • Meet Students Where They Are: Speaking of highly trafficked areas, don’t expect the students to come to you. Set up shop where students commonly gather or travel between classes. And while we at DRG regularly testify to the pointlessness of tchotchkes for donors, the same logic does not apply for students. Get their attention with giveaways. Students still love free stuff — especially free stuff infused with school spirit — and free food. Florida provided laptop stickers as giveaways for students who participated by writing thank you notes or filming a ThankView video. At Colorado State, we enticed students with hot chocolate, donuts and free CSU t-shirts throughout the week. One tip to promote participation is to turn learning into a game. At CSU, students visited three different stations to be quizzed about philanthropic facts, earning a stamp at each location. After visiting each station, students who wrote a thank you note to donors were entered to win even bigger prizes (gift cards, technology — a great way to involve local businesses!). Saying ‘thank you’ is fun — be sure to incorporate this energy into your events.

  • Social Media is Your Friend: Meeting students where they are means your gratitude programs must have a strong social media presence. Instagram takeovers, SnapChat lenses, geotagging and TikTok videos are all key ingredients to your plan. At CSU, our Presidential Ambassadors teamed up with the social media managers for the Alumni Association and the university to arrange partnerships and takeovers throughout the week. While promoting participation in the event among students, the posts have the added benefit of showcasing student gratitude with a wider alumni and donor audience and extending awareness to students who aren’t able to participate. Florida capitalized on students’ appetite for selfies by creating giant floor stickers with giving statistics and encouraging students to post on social media. You can follow CSU’s #GratitudeWeek posts on the Presidential Ambassadors’ Instagram account (check out stories in the profile) and search #GratefulGator to see Florida’s grassroots campaign come to life.

  • Involve Faculty and Staff: Everyone benefits from learning about philanthropy and taking time to express gratitude to our donors. At Florida, in addition to a large, central event, they partners with college and unit fundraising teams to host satellite events. Faculty, staff and students are all involved in writing thank you notes and calling donors. At CSU, we also partner with faculty and staff in areas whose philanthropic support may be less known to our student population — staging events at the library, student recreation center, dining halls and Alumni Center helps place a spotlight on the diversity of ways our donors are making a difference.

  • Stay Focused on Saying ‘Thank You’: The splashy social posts and energy-driven events with giveaways and pictures with campus mascots are great for garnering attention to promote the impact of giving, but at the end of the day we can’t lose sight of the purpose: developing an attitude of gratitude — and expressing it by saying ‘thank you’ to our donors. Stay grounded in this action even as you let the ideas flow for creating a fabulous educational experience. One lesson we also learned early on (the hard way) is to provide education on HOW to write a thank you note — this isn’t second nature to everyone. Also be sure to screen each note before mailing to your donors. Florida also created a placemat for their note-writing table with a list of commonly misspelled words — a brilliant addition that helps save those handwritten notes from the recycle bin.

Involving students in expressing gratitude to donors is a win-win — donors hear directly from beneficiaries and students develop their philanthropic spirit by learning more about how they benefit from the generosity of others. Interested in learning more? Check out this DRG Webinar recording, or contact us at the DRG Group for more ideas. You can build the foundation for your organization’s fundraising success by educating your future alumni on the importance of giving back.

Special thanks to my friend and fellow DRG Group member Sarah Sims for sharing #GratefulGatorDay secrets for this week’s post.

Matthew S. Helmer is a DRG Group member and Assistant Vice President of University Advancement at Colorado State University. Connecting students with the transformative power of philanthropy remains a consistent source of joy in his work — especially when that connection happens over a Starbucks cup! Connect on LinkedIn or follow on Twitter for more (mostly random) thoughts.


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