Pomona Sees Fewer Alumni Donors, with Fatter Wallets

Pomona College is receiving a greater proportion of fundraising dollars from an increasingly small pool of donors.

The schools’ Institutional Indicators for the 2016-2017 academic year, a document prepared annually for the Board of Trustees with statistics about the school, reveals trends regarding alumni affairs. Although total contributions continue to increase in dollar terms in most categories of giving, participation rates in various Annual Fund categories are declining.

According to Craig Arteaga-Johnson, Pomona’s assistant vice president for advancement, alumni, and parent engagement, this pattern is not surprising.

“Pomona’s experience with the alumni giving rates is really part of a broad national trend,” Arteaga-Johnson said. He said there are a few theories behind the phenomenon.

“The charitable landscape is becoming a lot more competitive,” Arteaga-Johnson said. “In the past, schools were the small handful of organizations [people] really had access to in terms of giving. Now, we all receive dozens of opportunities to contribute to charitable causes.”

He pointed out various online platforms as examples of the growing philanthropy sector.

The growth of technology is also a contributing factor in connecting with alumni, he said.

“Some of the channels we’ve historically used to reach out to people to secure their support are becoming more and more clogged,” he said.

For example, young alumni especially receive mass promotional emails and phone calls.

“While we still have student calling programs,” he added, “over time the number of people who have picked up their phones has been declining.”

In response, Pomona has been taking initiatives to re-engage alumni. Arteaga-Johnson explained that historically, alumni donations typically go toward the annual fund and are used by the college in areas it sees fit. But recent alumni "are interested in whether there are opportunities in targeting their givings specifically," he said.

As such, Pomona has instituted programs to offer alumni the opportunity to support specific causes, such as funding internships. Another example is Champions of Sagehen Athletics, a donation fund that was established last year for the Pomona athletics program.

“When the target area aligns with something they care about, often you’ll see them giving more than they will otherwise,” Arteaga-Johnson explained.

Pomona’s trend regarding alumni contribution and participation is also echoed at other Claremont Colleges. Adrienne Gibson, the executive director of alumni engagement, wrote in an email to TSL that “the giving trends that Pomona is experiencing are absolutely also happening at Scripps.”

According to David Sonner, president of Harvey Mudd College's Alumni Association Board of Governors, the past five years at his alma mater have shown both an eight percent increase in terms of total dollars given as well as a three percent decrease in participation. He cited a study conducted in 2016 by S.T.A.F.F., an organization consisting of 48 small liberal arts colleges including both Pomona and Claremont McKenna, that found that among about 35 liberal arts colleges, two-thirds went up in alumni dollars while two-thirds simultaneously went down in alumni participation.

“Younger donors may have doubts about whether giving to their alma mater make the most impact,” he said.

Like Arteaga-Johnson, Sonner also listed advances in technology as reducing the effectiveness of Harvey Mudd's outreach efforts.

“People are more likely to screen calls now that we have caller ID, so volunteers are more likely to get voicemail than talk with a person,” he said, using his own experience working at a phone-a-thon.

In trying to incentivize participation, Harvey Mudd is trying to reconnect alumni to each other and to the college. “We put a lot of emphasis on things like alumni weekend,” Sonner said, detailing events such as zoo trips, whale watching, and hikes as examples of social excursions.

“Every year, we’ve seen increasing levels of people coming to alumni weekend,” he added. “People who are connected that way are more likely to participate and be reminded of the value of their alma mater and give.”

Liam Reese PO ’18 reaffirmed this phenonem through his personal experiences at Star47, Pomona’s student calling program.

“We see these trends at work,” he wrote in a message to TSL. “In three years of calling, I’ve heard a lot of objections and flat-out rejections."

He added that Star47 sees an average of a three percent decline in particulation during election years, as many donors turn their attention to political action groups instead.

“What I’ve seen a lot more of in the last three years has been what we call the ‘too liberal’ objection,” Reese wrote. “Pomona is a very different institution than it was even 20 years ago, and many alumni disagree with the direction the college is headed toward and refuse to support it on those grounds.”

David Guadalupe PO ’19, wrote in an email to TSL that “one of the most common reasons given to us when alumni decide to not donate is because they see that Pomona has however many billions in the endowment.”

Reese stressed the importance of the alumni Annual Fund compared to the endowment. “The endowment is pretty much ‘untouchable,’ meaning that we can’t just reach into that fund and use the money to help out current students,” he wrote.

“The endowment is an investment, and we only see the returns on that investment on an annual basis. So the Annual Fund is critical to ensuring that students on campus get the resources they need in this academic year,” he explained.

Guadalupe expressed his concern regarding the decline in participation.

“Every fiscal year we ask for a slightly larger amount,” he wrote, explaining that in accounting for the trend agents will need to ask the alumni that do give for larger amounts.

“This can be an issue because at some point, alumni will simply get tired for being asked every year for more money that they may or may not have,” he wrote.

However, both Arteaga-Johnson and Sonner were reassured that since dollar contributions are on the rise, the schools need not be immediately concerned about the lack of participation.

“We certainly are dismayed to see the decline in participation rate as it can eventually have negative effects on sustainability of the dollars we are trying to increase over time,” Arteaga-Johnson said. “However, as the dollars go up, we don’t have a big reason to be concerned."