I recently came across a podcast (from Achieve). The title caught my attention:
University is a Cause.
[Scroll down to play the 10 minute podcast, or visit Achieve's Podcast page.]
They rightly point out that in the eyes of students and alumni (especially recent ones), a university is not a cause. This helps explain why it's increasingly difficult to attract and retain these individuals as donors.
The folks at Achieve would agree with that, but I wonder whether their prescription for addressing this will be helpful in the long run. A key component of their advice is that universities should use "cause-type language" in messaging and solicitation.
Sounding like a cause does not make you a cause. And donors know this.
Universities exist largely to enable the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. While that has the makings of something broad, societal and over-arching, to accomplish this goal universities are organizations first, and causes second – if at all. Therefore, they generally lack the immediate impact, broad appeal, and problem-solving identity that characterize social causes.
[Sounding like a cause does not make you a cause –
and donors know this]
Donors know that a gift to alma mater is generally an indirect way to promote renewable energy, eradicate poverty, alleviate hunger, reduce violence, or decrease pollution.
Of course, universities must raise money! And Achieve's overall assessment is valid. But it can't address the underlying attitudes and expectations of the Millennial prospects that this advice targets.
Doing that will require:
- a change in the student experience itself,
- a change in the stated purpose of alumni organizations, and
- a change in the way universities align their work with that of other world-changing organizations. (I will write much more about this last point in the near future.)
A university is not primarily a cause, it's an organization (or a group of organizations). But by connecting with other organizations and contributing part of the solution to global problems, a university's researchers, students and alumni can support outcomes that transcend the needs of a single institution.
And when they do, they will be much more relevant and engaging to their alumni and donors.
What do you think – is a university a cause? Leave a comment.