Sean O’Hara graduated from Arizona State University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and then got a law degree from the University of Kansas.
He belongs to the ASU Alumni Association, attends many home football games and plans to donate money to the school’s foundation one day.
“That’s certainly on the long-term horizon,” the 28-year-old Scottsdale resident said. Until then, “I’m guilty of finding other ways to spend my money.”
O’Hara represents a new hope and strategy for Arizona’s three state universities as they work on building their base of donors to ensure more financial health and stronger programs well into the future. More than ever, college alumni younger than 35 are being cultivated as potential sources of money by the universities, which find that their traditional mainstay of support, state funding, is failing to keep pace with needs.
Alumni associations are leading the charge, reinventing themselves to connect better with younger graduates. The associations are branching out far beyond the glossy, semiannual magazine and football-watching parties at local bars. They’re sponsoring career-networking events and using social Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
They have even broadened the definition of “alumni.” Babies, for instance, can belong to the ASU Alumni Association for a $25-a-year fee.
So far at ASU, the new efforts are having “terrific results,” with more changes in the works, said Christine Wilkinson, president of ASU’s Alumni Association. The university’s alumni membership is 7.6 percent, up from 5.7 percent five years ago.
ASU and the other two state universities have a ways to go, though.
The state’s universities already underachieve when it comes to percentage of all alumni who give. ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University are at or near the bottom of their respective peer-school lists, collecting money from 11 percent, 6 percent and 5 percent of alumni, respectively.
Jack Miller, a Colorado fundraising consultant, said a giving rate of 15 percent to 20 percent is considered good.
One reason for the low giving rates is the state’s rapid population growth, which has helped drive up college enrollment and, as a result, the number of alums. Fifty-eight percent of ASU’s 288,127 alumni, for example, are 45 or younger. Nearly a third are 35 and younger.
The last thing on the minds of many younger graduates is joining an alumni group or making donations to their alma mater. They’re still establishing their careers, their earnings remain low, and they may be starting families.
Many also feel like they’ve already paid their university a lot of money for tuition and housing.
“I’m still paying off student loans,” said Jessica May, 23, a private-college finance manager and a 2007 graduate of ASU. The Tempe resident hasn’t responded to twice-a-year mailers asking her to join the Alumni Association.
Lindsay Matlow, 24, is a December graduate of UA who said she wants to join its Alumni Association.
But “right now, it’s not on my priority list.” She has yet to land a job in her field 10 months after getting a bachelor’s degree in communications.
She estimates she has sent out at least 100 resumes. The Scottsdale resident is living at home and working as a beverage-cart server at a golf course.
University officials say the key to getting alumni involved is through special events, part of a process they call “engagement” or “making connections.”
The more engaged or connected a graduate is, the more likely he or she will be a donor.
Once they give, they are more likely to give again and in larger amounts, said Rae Goldsmith, a vice president with the non-profit Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
The bottom line is not the only goal of universities’ focus on younger alumni.
The “average alumni giving rate” is one of seven factors used by U.S. News & World Report to determine a college’s annual ranking.
The giving rate is viewed as an indirect measure of graduates’ satisfaction with the school and makes up 5 percent of a university’s score. A higher ranking and score can help recruit new students and enhance a university’s image.
For younger graduates to join an alumni group, they want to know “what’s in it for me,” Miller said. That could be a benefit or service, such as a career-networking event.
Alumni associations are hoping their new strategies will reach more people.
ASU has shifted from having alumni chapters based on geography in Arizona to ones based on demographics. Graduates younger than 35 can join the Young Alumni program.
That program, launched this fall, features special events such as “Dinner With a Dozen Devils,” where students meet and eat in small groups. They also are invited to tailgates before football games at a Tempe-area bar and to productions at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium.
No one is overlooked. Two years ago, ASU opened up alumni membership to babies through eighth-graders.
More than 200 children belong, up from about 80 the first year.
NAU recently converted its glossy Pine alumni magazine into an electronic format to appeal to younger readers. NAU also added a Facebook page and Twitter features in the past year.
Alumni associations also are trying to help current students in hopes they will become members once they graduate.
UA recently launched Career Connections, a network of alumni that helps graduating students transition into careers. Alumni in the network agree to talk to students about their career fields.
At the same time they are under pressure to bring in more members, all three state alumni associations are working with fewer staff this year because of the tough economy. NAU and UA have also cut back on events.
They are optimistic that once the economy turns around, their membership numbers and alumni contributions will grow.
“I tell my staff every day, ‘One alum at a time,'” said Neil Goodell, NAU’s director of alumni relations.