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Why ‘Generational Leaders’ Are Your Fundraising Secret Weapons

The higher-ed fundraising game is changing.

Most gift officers treat their “evergreen” donors—those who consistently give year after year—to dinner once in a while and then take whatever steps necessary to maintain the relationship, and continuously reinforce the myriad ways the college or university values their contribution. It’s a low-maintenance, reliable revenue stream.

In fact, the average gift amount in 2017 surpassed $2150 for the first time in five years and the number of donors across the country reached an all-time high of 2.1 million. The major gift giving business must be booming, right? Not so fast.

The Future of Evergreen Donors

It’s true, evergreen donors are gift officer gold, but 65 percent of them are 65 and older. They traditionally continue giving well into their 70s but, based on average life expectancy, they’re a finite resource. Slightly more disconcerting is that the next wave of donors—those in their 40s and 50s—have shown declining year-over-year participation and an annual gift size that has flattened.

Put simply, the category of donors that contribute the biggest, most reliable donations is shrinking and the group of donors poised to replace them is giving less and less.

So, how do colleges and universities that depend on fundraising for scholarships, salaries, and operating costs, survive a potentially fatal dip in revenue? Nurture a new pipeline.

Finding Your Fundraising Secret Weapon

The term ‘generational leader’ represents alumni who are around 10 years removed from graduation and represent the top 10 percent of their peers for giving. They give early, often, and consistently.

In fact, the average gift size of a generational leader is 9.5 times greater than that of their peers, according to data we collected from 131 schools and almost 35 million donors. Generational leaders represent an overlooked donor base that feels genuine loyalty to its school and enjoys a higher-than-average affinity for giving.

The Advantages of Leveraging Generational Leaders

Generational leaders, by definition, tend be in their late 20s or early 30s. That allows gift officers to build relationships and encourage positive giving habits a full 10-15 years before these donors enter their peak earning years.

Considering it usually takes around 20 years to become an evergreen donor—and the average age of most evergreen donors is 62 years—nurturing generational leaders in their 30s establishes a consistent revenue stream for three, four, and even five decades to come.

The Bottom Line

The easy way to meet your giving goals is to lean heavily on evergreen and wealthy donors—a strategy employed by far too many gift officers. The problem with this approach is that the former would give to your institution anyway and the latter doesn’t have a great affinity to give. One could be considered low-hanging fruit that doesn’t require much effort; the other can be unpredictable and difficult to set goals against.

That’s why it’s so important to identify the right prospects—including generational leaders—and get them into your pipeline as early as possible. Here are a few other things to consider when building your pipeline.


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