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Alumni appreciation: 6 effective strategies to say thank you

August 01, 2022
A businesswoman at a higher education institution shakes hands with an alum during a meeting, demonstrating one of many alumni appreciation strategies.

Alumni are valuable resources for your school. Whether they donate on your annual giving day, volunteer to run an event, or spread the word about your scholarship offerings, their contributions are essential to the long-term success of your higher education programs.

In order to inspire their continued support, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that alumni have on your school. Effective alumni appreciation drives donations, encourages past students to get involved, and creates a more vibrant community.  

In this guide, we’ll walk through six alumni appreciation strategies that lead to increased engagement and retention. But first, let’s consider how thanking alumni can benefit your higher education institution.  

Why is alumni appreciation important? 

Though most alumni move away from campus to pursue careers, their contributions continue to have a lasting impact on your higher education community. Current students receive access to a global professional network in which they can pursue mentorship and employment opportunities. Institutions partner with alumni to meet financial goals for scholarships and other campus developments. 

By engaging and thanking alumni, your institution can secure their long-term support and encourage involvement long after graduation. 

Top 6 alumni appreciation strategies

If you’re looking for guidance on how to show gratitude to your alumni, consider how these alumni appreciation strategies can help drive support:

1. Personalize outreach

Communicating your appreciation to alumni with letters, cards, and emails is a classic approach. Chances are your school already sends some sort of thank-you message after an alum: 

  • Attends an event 
  • Offers to interview candidates for admission 
  • Makes a donation 
  • Hosts an alumni get-together 

Your alumni are much more likely to pay attention to your programs, feel appreciated, and take action when you speak to them directly rather than sending out a generic mass appeal. In fact, 74% of alumni donors prefer some form of personal “thank-you” for their contribution. 

Personalize your appeals by referring to each alum by name and mentioning something specific about their involvement with your school, such as their field of study, campus involvement, geographical location, graduation year, or giving history. To make your alumni feel valued, have an administrator or other official sign each note. These small personal touches go a long way in establishing a genuine relationship with alumni. 

2. Hand out gifts

Branded gifts, which display your school’s name and logo, are particularly appealing to alumni as they take pride in representing their alma mater. These gifts also serve as free advertising, allowing alumni to spread the word about your institution as they go about their day-to-day lives.

Consider expressing your appreciation with the following branded merchandise:

  • Stickers or car magnets 
  • Stuffed mascots 
  • T-Shirts
  • Key chains 
  • Mugs or water bottles 
  • Leather-bound notebook or padfolio

Ensure your gift is appropriate for the alum’s level of involvement, volunteerism, or contribution. For instance, unbranded gifts might be more appropriate for significant donors, which could include food baskets, bottles of wine, or free tickets to sporting events. Alternatively, you could send alumni branded items on their birthday each year to remind them of their positive experience at your school. 

3. Host virtual alumni appreciation events 

A vibrant alumni community relies on your ability to bring graduates together and foster a sense of comradery. If you’re looking to engage alumni near and far, consider launching virtual alumni appreciation events like: 

  • Happy hours: Virtual alumni appreciation happy hours might highlight significant donors and other important alumni contributors, plus provide an opportunity for alums to get to know each other in a casual environment. 
  • Workshops/classes: Offering useful, relevant workshops and classes to express gratitude for your alumni is a good choice, as alumni will appreciate the workshop content as well as the effort to acknowledge them. Workshops for new graduates, for example, might focus on financial literacy or networking, while professional development classes with prominent speakers may be the right choice for more seasoned alums. 
  • Virtual luncheons/dinners: Traditional in-person events like meals can easily be shifted to the virtual sphere. Consider providing attendees with a food-ordering gift certificate upon registration for the event that they can use to order lunch or dinner before your virtual gathering. 

Virtual fundraising events are effective because they offer a high level of flexibility for everyone involved. For instance, alumni can participate from anywhere, meaning your school can engage a larger audience with fewer additional costs. Just be sure to inform participants of how the event will work before launch day. For instance, let them know if they need to download video conferencing software or access your social media livestream. 

4. Give public recognition

Major donors, seasoned volunteers, and essential players in local alumni associations who contribute significantly to your school deserve to be publicly recognized for their support. 

You can recognize large contributors in several ways, including: 

  • On a web page or microsite. A dedicated page on your school’s website that lists important alumni figures and their contributions is an easy way to publicly acknowledge their support. 
  • Social media mentions. Did a specific alum significantly contribute to a recent event, initiative, or campaign? Post their photo on social media and use the caption to explain the impact of their efforts.
  • A donor recognition wall or plaque. Donor recognition walls are meaningful, semi-permanent installations designed to recognize important supporters. Digital recognition walls are also a great option—they allow more flexibility if you anticipate wanting to change out the names on the wall often. 
  • Alumni appreciation awards. Design awards to give out annually to key supporters, and spread the word on social media when there’s a new recipient. 

Public recognition not only expresses your genuine gratitude for alumni but also incentivizes involvement from other alums who witness their peers’ generosity. Just be sure to check with alumni before you use this appreciation strategy—the last thing you want to do is catch an alum off guard with a public mention they didn’t approve.

5. Suggest naming opportunities  

Naming opportunities are a tried and true method for raising funds and building meaningful relationships. This sign of appreciation is reserved for your school’s most significant donors. In exchange for a generous donation, their name is displayed in a place of honor for everyone on campus to see.

For example, a major donor to a capital campaign may deserve to have one of the following features named after them: 

  • Buildings, such as libraries and dormitories 
  • Lecture halls
  • Scholarships and funds 
  • Halls or wings of buildings 
  • Benches, sculptures, or landscape features 

To get alumni interested in naming opportunities, show them where their name could appear, whether that be through a campus tour or series of example photos. Let them know that the location of the building, plaque, or other feature is publicly accessible and that their name will be displayed prominently. If you’re building a new structure in their honor, take their input into account and keep them in the loop throughout the design and construction process.

6. Establish an alumni appreciation day

Having a dedicated alumni appreciation day allows your school to combine several appreciation ideas, such as events, gifts, public recognition, and appreciation messages, into one interactive event. Plus, alumni appreciation that is run within a specific time frame provides an important initiative to market and build momentum around, increasing participation and event attendance. 

Here are some ways to celebrate your next alumni appreciation day:

You might also consider offering alums a discount on official school merchandise on alumni appreciation day. Whatever you choose to offer alumni, they’re sure to appreciate the school’s effort to draw attention to their contributions.

A final note about alumni appreciation

For the best results, use a combination of these alumni appreciation strategies to show gratitude and engage graduates throughout the year. Make sure that the strategies you choose appeal to your alumni’s preferences and past involvement. With the right signs of appreciation, you’ll be able to improve your relationships with alumni, boost fundraising efforts, and maintain a strong alumni network. 

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    Donor Engagement
  • Educational institutions
  • Giving day