February 8, 2011

Forging Lifelong Connections

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Alumni must not forget the institutions that built them up for success — even in stringent financial times. This year, alumni donations have dropped off from $446.7 million to $308.2 million. The raw numbers belie the fact that last year’s donation figures were skewed heavily by Sanford Weill’s ’55 generous $170 million contribution for the construction projects at Weill Cornell Medical College. Regardless, only 32 to 37 percent of alumni donate to the University from year to year, according to Charles Phlegar, vice president of alumni affairs and development.

This middling donation rate is consistently lower than the University’s peers. Princeton University, for instance, regularly sees more than 60 percent of its alumni give money. This high rate of donations indicates an emotional connection with a campus, and a general concern for the direction it takes both financially and educationally.

But high giving rates do not just manifest themselves in a more robust endowment. Alumni contributions can serve to embellish the experience of students currently enrolled at an alma mater. In turn, this inspires further donations by the young alumni when they graduate, creating a positive cycle of giving, which becomes a sense of pride for the University.

A general dearth in donations is not solely to be blamed on a lack of enthusiasm from the alumni base. A survey released last year by the Cornell Career Services office showed that only a little more than half of the graduating Class of 2009 had found employment six months after graduation. For students who feel their degrees must earn them gainful employment and financial security, it may not be pragmatic to write checks for a University that, in their eyes, has failed to facilitate an adequate living.

The University must market its lauded Career Services office, consistently ranked among the best in the nation, to students of all interests and majors. Staffers must work carefully to ensure that all graduating students feel they have been provided with the opportunities necessary to succeed following graduation. An increased sense of satisfaction with a degree’s marketability could do much to increase young alumni donations.

The onus of keeping alumni involved also falls on the active Cornell alumni clubs across the nation. These clubs are chartered for the purpose of building a sense of community amongst all University alumni, connecting diverse careers and life paths through their shared Cornell experience. These clubs must strongly push to recruit and keep alumni connected to campus, maintaining emotional connections and building University pride. By bolstering relationships with alumni soon after they graduate, the University forges lifelong connections that are reflected in a more stable endowment and a more memorable collegiate experience.