Best Practices

The Alumni-Centric Approach to Transformational Philanthropy

The Alumni-Centric Approach to Transformational Philanthropy


Dr. Maria Gallo & Dr. Kevin Fleming


November 5, 2021

Last modified: 

November 5, 2021

How can alumni-centric programming lead to transformational philanthropy?

We were in conversation with Kalyan Varma of Almabase to tackle this question.

What a conversation! At a time when alumni relations and advancement is filled with doing all the time, it was a refreshing 45 minutes to reflect on the future of our sector.

What is transformational philanthropy? In a nutshell, it’s the philanthropy that changes the course of the institution, the game changer, the ability to create tremendous impact. When you add an alumni-centric elements to the mix, you end up with transformational experiences with and for students and alumni.

Alumni engagement fundraising

We reveled in the moment a couple of weeks back, so much so that neither of us took notes. This won’t be a synopsis of the presentation (a recording worth returning to!). Instead, we want to present to you a structure for transformational philanthropy that we developed in our book chapter ‘Transformational Philanthropy: Alumni Giving to Advance the International Agenda’ in the book Engaging International Alumni as Strategic Partners.

This structure was presented in the book as a Venn diagram, outlining three overlapping circles to create the synergy required for transformational philanthropy. In the chapter, we present three key aspects of transformational philanthropy that we outlined in our virtual fireside chat:

  • The Anchor: the mission, vision, values, and strategy of the institution
  • The Lens: priorities and advancement and/or alumni plan*
  • The Landscape: institutional context, resources and constituents (e.g., alumni)

*In the chapter, The Lens is described as the international plan- if you have a particular interest in international alumni relations and transformational philanthropy — this book is for you!

For those who love visuals (we do!) here’s the original diagram:

Figure 1: Framework for Transformational Philanthropy to Advance the Internationalization Agenda from Gallo, M.L. and Fleming, K. (2021) ‘Transformational Philanthropy: Alumni Giving to Advance the International Agenda’ in: Rincón, S. and Dobson, G. Engaging International Alumni as Strategic Partners. Washington: NAFSA, pp.88.

Rereading the chapter, another image emerged: a funnel. Imagine starting broad with the institutional mission and narrowing to the institutional realities in which we work, towards creating the perfect transformational philanthropy storm.

Alumni relationships take time. Having these elements in place, however, is not enough. They need to be enacted, which is where the importance of alumni/advancement professionals and alumni leadership to act as the catalyst. When Maria read on, she realized it wasn’t a funnel but an hourglass shape that she visualized as below:

Figure 2: Extended View of Transformational Philanthropy as an Hourglass

This extended version of the funnel becoming an hourglass allows for so much more! In the bottom of the hourglass, the three elements of transformational philanthropy are enacted through a case for support (“the anchor”), compelling storytelling (“the lens”) and creating points of celebration and stewardship involving the institutional community (“the landscape”).

As with any hourglass, you can imagine the grains of sand that occupy and trickle down through the narrowest point of the vessel: these are our alumni. They also occupy the bottom half of the vessel, filling up the bulb. This is what makes transformational philanthropy alumni-centric: Involving alumni (and indeed students- alum from day one!) in all the aspects of the journey, from identifying mission, vision values and priorities to the compelling stories and celebration. Transformational philanthropy is transformational when the impact on the institutional community aligns with mission and focuses on this question: what’s the long-term impact of this gift or service for students, alumni and (potentially) on society?

What does everyone do with an hourglass?  Keep tipping it over so that the sands flow back and forth!  Alumni centricity and transformational philanthropy are iterative in that they build upon and inform one another — in essence, a continual turning over of the hourglass to inform engagement. This is a fundamental question our industry should continually ask ourselves about every assumption and logic model we have.  Often, we have things backwards or upside down!

Do note, as Kevin emphasized in the panel discussion, transformational philanthropy might be the large financial donations to the institution, but it also includes alumni volunteering and programming that can have an incredible impact on the lives of our students, alumni, and society. In Maria’s book The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment (just published!) she describes philanthropy as time, talent, treasure, and ties (networks) that our alumni bring to our institutions through their generosity and service.

How can you bring alumni-centric transformational philanthropy to your institution?

First, complete Dr Jay Dillon’s alumni-centric exercise outlined here: it’s simple and gets you on the road to alumni-centric thinking for your planning and your work.

Next, we would suggest the ‘one actionable thing’ that we challenged attendees from the session could do: revisit your plan. This might be your alumni engagement plan, your development plan, or even your international plan. After the section on key performance indicators, outputs, or outcomes for each objective, add a new column. Call this column alumni impact. Consider this question for all your programs, events, or case for support priorities: what’s the potential impact on alumni (and students)? How can alumni or students be directly involved in its success? Be creative! Stretch your thinking!

Get in touch with Maria Gallo and/or Kevin Fleming if you want to explore these ideas with your team or alumni leadership.

✒ About the Authors

Dr. Maria Gallo is the Founder & Principal of KITE - Keep In Touch Education, a consultancy that is at the forefront of research and thought leadership in alumni relations, trends, and engagement. With over 20 years of experience working in various leadership roles in higher education and advancement, Maria brings expert insights and unique perspectives to the table through her resources. Besides having an active research portfolio, Maria also has several peer-reviewed academic journal publications in alumni relationships and philanthropy. Through her publications, Maria expresses her strong belief in the power alumni networks possess. She also featured in a TEDx Talk in 2018 where she spoke about how one can make the most out of alumni networks.

Dr. Maria’s latest book, The Alumni Way, which dives deep into the vast potential of alumni networks, is out now.

Dr. Kevin Fleming is the Co-Founder & CEO at Prosper Nonprofit Advisors, a consulting firm that provides philanthropic guidance to nonprofit organizations. A veteran in the Alumni Relations and Nonprofit space, Dr. Kevin has over 20 years of experience under his belt. Over the years, he has worked with a number of institutions to transform overall alumni engagement and communications strategies, volunteer programs, and event alignments. He has published a ground-breaking theory of alumni engagement in the peer-reviewed Journal of Philanthropy and Education, entitled “The Pots of Water Framework for Alumni Engagement.”

An educator and researcher by nature, Kevin’s background in teaching makes him an excellent meeting facilitator. His immense knowledge, paired with a great sense of humor, makes him extremely approachable to talk to about all things alumni relations and fundraising.

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