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Fund-Raising Pace Slowed in 2012, but Revenues Were Up, Survey Finds

The number of alumni donors and the amount of money colleges collected from them stayed relatively flat in 2012, according to survey results released on Monday, bringing fund raising down to earth after a pair of postrecession bounce-back years.

Colleges counted 1.4 percent fewer donors in the 2012 fiscal year but pulled in about 2.3 percent more revenue from them. Institutions have seen donors drop off since before the recession, but the uptick in revenue represented a slowdown from the two previous years, which had seen 5.9-percent and 5.7-percent growth, respectively.

The survey, showing median figures for about 120 private and public colleges, was conducted by Target Analytics, which is part of the software company Blackbaud. The findings were presented on Monday at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s annual meeting, in San Francisco.

“Things are shifting back to normal,” said Jenny Cooke, a Blackbaud official who supervised the survey. “But what’s normal has changed some for institutions.”

The study is also in line with a report this year from the Council for Aid to Education, which also showed that colleges saw fund-raising revenue increase by 2.3 percent in the 2012 fiscal year, for a total take of $31-billion.

Over all, the colleges surveyed by Blackbaud saw a 10-percent participation rate among alumni, a small decrease from the 11-percent rate of the last two years.

The recent pattern of stable giving has set off a sprint for colleges to figure out how to maximize revenue from a shrinking donor base.

Colleges over all received 2.6 percent more revenue from repeat donors in 2012, a proportion that colleges can help lift by creating recurring-donor programs, which automatically sign up alumni for annual gifts, Ms. Cooke said. Very few of the institutions surveyed have such programs, but if they can “figure out a way around the bureaucracy and being able to turn it around internally, it’s probably the biggest change we’re looking at,” she said.

Colleges that have performed well recently have spent more on their development staffs in order to make more personal connections with potential donors, Ms. Cooke said.

Such strategies will have to make up for a vast generational decline in giving to colleges. For instance, while private colleges retained 64 percent of alumni donors in the 1990s, they have kept only one-third of them this decade.

“There are signs that people aren’t opposed to giving to higher ed,” Ms. Cooke said. “We just need to figure out how to best approach them.”

Public colleges seemed to make the biggest strides in attracting new donors, as they counted 2.4 percent more while private colleges saw 4.1 percent less.  “Based on what we know from the cohort in this study, it would appear publics were more aggressive in asking their alumni to increase their support,” said Shaun B. Keister, vice chancellor for development and alumni relations at the University of California at Davis.

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