A Taste for Adventure

By Alicia Pettis

The GOLD Network

The GOLD* Network is a great example of institutional entrepreneurship, where I used Design Thinking to build a service model within a current organization, to meet both the needs of young alumni and James Madison University’s business goal of growing their pipeline of donors.

*GOLD = Graduates Of the Last Decade

Quick Overview

The Problem: Incongruence of young alumni population with donor participation.

Role: Spearheaded and led initiative.

Timeline: May 2015 – June 2016.

Main Deliverables: business proposal, personas, organization design, survey, market research,

Outcome & Impact: 24% increase in Young Alumni donors.

Defining the problem.

My argument for why leadership should be focusing on Young Alumni (YA) at JMU was because of their general population numbers and potential gift size over their lifetime. In fact, over 30% of JMU’s 120,000 alumni at that time, were graduates of the last decade. As of March 26th, 2015, of the 5,512 of alumni who gave that fiscal year, 944 were YA, representing 17% of the alumni donor population. With around 4,000 new alumni graduating every year, the potential impact of this populations’ donors on the alumni giving percentage is crucial for higher university rankings.

Focusing on young alumni was not only a short-term solution to increasing fundraising prospects and alumni donor percentages, but also a long-term solution for fundraising sustainability. Statistics show that starting giving closer to graduation increases the likelihood that they will give again (Engaging Students and Young Alumni, 2011). While 63% of alumni who did not give when they were young alumni gave at least one time, 93% of alumni who gave while they were young alumni gave at least one time later on (Bent 2012). Engaging young alumni early on means a higher possibility that they will give again later.

While young alumni are great prospects for annual giving, they can also become great prospects for major gifts. Some of the main characteristics of major gift donors can be traced to their young alumni years (McDearmon, 2010). In fact, research from some private research universities show that a large majority of $1 million-plus donors began to give in their first 10 years out from graduation (Engaging Students and Young Alumni, 2011). So starting the process as early as graduation, or even before, can increase not only the number of gifts, but also the size of the gifts.

Basically, Young Alumni are the key to future success.

To be able to understand and empathize with these YA, I conducted a comprehensive research strategy that included looking at a 2014 Alumni Survey, Peer Institutions, general Non-Profit efforts to engage Millennials, research from Giving Think Tanks, and internal data on alumni.

In 2014, on the heels of launching a public campaign, JMU sent out an survey to over 100k alumni, with about a 5% response rate. Focusing in on those who graduated in the last 10 years, I pulled out general trends.

I then worked with our graphics team to create infographics to be able to communicate back to our young alumni: we heard you! This, to me, was an important part of empathizing with our young alumni, letting them know that we are interested in listening to what they think and feel.

Given the power of emotions, delving into what emotions drove alumni to continue to connect, engage, and give to JMU was very important to understand.

Through the 2014 Alumni Survey, we learned that pride was the number one emotional driver for young alumni. In fact, it was the number one emotional driver for the entire alumni population. What was important to me, about noting this particular emotion, is that talking about the needs of JMU and invoking a sense of responsibility or loyalty, would not work as well.

Because Universities don’t often compete with each other for undergraduate alumni donors, we often rely on each other for ideas and insights into what is working well for them. That’s why, when I was researching the best strategies to increase YA Giving, I turned to a few standout Universities who pioneered YA giving efforts: Georgia Tech, UCLA, and UPenn. I was able to meet with staff in-person, while visiting their respective cities during conferences.

In looking at other peer institutions, I looked at schools like Mary Washington University and others to learn more about their approaches to young alumni. I also wanted to know what other non-higher-ed non-profits were doing to engage young alumni. Given that most of JMU’s alumni lived in the DC-metro area, I looked at non-profits in that area as well.

Finally, I turned to Think Tanks and Associations to gather info. One piece of info particularly stood out to me: in research conducted by Achieve in 2014 on Millennial Alumni, 86% of respondents said they would enjoy using their skills, talents or expertise to volunteer with their alma mater.

Between what we had in our internal database and what I could find on linkedin, I was able to gather some basic facts about our current alumni. The location data was particularly important, given that young alumni wanted to interact with other local alums.

Looking at the current environment of both the Student experience and the Young Alumni experience, I began to notice some gaps.

You can see where certain programs don’t transition from the Student experience to the Young Alumni experience.
[Key: The lighter color means the program is run through a different division.]

After concluding my research, I set out to define the needs of young alumni.

The two biggest insights on young alumni needed:

  1. YA need a stronger transition from being a student to a young alumni.
  2. YA need a young alumni experience that mirrored their student experience.
The Student Alumni Association (SAA) was started in 2013. However, there was a gap for really involved and engaged young alumni, that needed to be filled. We needed something to help transfer students to young alumni.

The GOLD Network Concept Elements:

  • GOLD was chosen as the name because GOLD stands for Graduates Of the Last Decade (aka our young alumni). It also happened to be one of the colors of JMU: Purple & Gold.
  • A board similar to the Student Alumni Association and the Alumni Association Board of Directors was chosen because it allowed for continuity in organizations as alumni became more established.
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising strategies would be the main focus of the volunteers, as this was shown to be the most effective way to get Young Alumni to give.

Now that I had a few concepts to work with, I began to prototype what the program and brand would look like.

I based this program chart off of both the Student Alumni Association and Alumni Association Board Charts. This allowed for there to be more continuity through the programs as Alumni grew more established over the years.

I worked with our in-house graphic designer to create a professional, modern, and JMU-branded logo. Below you will find my rough sketches on a whiteboard.

Some of my initial sketches.

The logo below was chosen because it best aligned with the larger JMU brand.

The final logo version.

In 2013, only 2 years before the GOLD Network was conceptualized, the Student Alumni Association was started. The purpose of this program was to transition Students to Alumni by providing Alumni-like experiences. What I noticed was a gap, for really involved and engaged students as they aged into young alumni, that needed to be filled. We needed something for the Young Alumni to mirror the Student Alumni Association.

GOLD Network filled in an engagement gap for Young Alumni, mirroring the SAA.

To better understand who were the users of this program, personas were created.

To test out this program, I began by recruiting Young Alumni who were involved in the creation of the Student Alumni Association. These were “Extreme Users” in many ways, because they had been involved in building a similar program for students.

We met together in January 2016 for a weekend-long retreat to begin developing the program. I started off At this retreat, I facilitated a few workshops to develop high-level, low-fidelity ideas. From this, we worked together to build a strategic vision, through defining the mission, vision, and values of the program.

Here is the final version of the strategic plan, which guided this program through the end of the Comprehensive Campaign in June, 2020.

A big part of obtaining leadership buy-in to start the GOLD Network, was demonstrating the business value of investing both staffs’ budget and time in Young Alumni.

By outlining annual benchmarks, like donor participation, we were able to show how this population may play an important role in the Comprehensive Campaign now and in the future.

In order to successfully launch this program I turned to colleagues and investors to gain resources and support. Below, you can learn more about the associated initiatives that were integrated throughout the division through collaboration.

GOLD Volunteers at a 2017 retreat.

Click on this following link to learn more about how I used collaboration to integrate young alumni needs throughout the division. [Collaboration Across Teams.]

Click on the following link to learn more about my successful pitch to the Madison Trust to receive $12k od seed-money for the “Career & Networking Month” and “Giving Day” initiatives. [Pitching to Investors.]

Incredible results we saw just in the first year
(July 2015 – June 2016).


Bent, L.G. (2012). Young Alumni Giving: An Exploration of Institutional Strategies.

A Culture of Philanthropy. (2014). Retrieved April 20, 2015, from http://www.jmu.edu/jmuplans/corequalities/core-quality-4.shtml

Engaging Students and Young Alumni: The Importance of Cultivating the Next Generation of Donors. (2011). ASHE Higher Education Report, 37(2), 65-70.

Holmes, J.G. (2009). Prestige, charitable deductions and other determinants of alumni giving: Evidence from a highly selective liberal arts college. Economics of Education Review 28: 18-28

Irwin, J. (2013, June 12). Students ‘Go MAD’ for Madison. Retrieved April 7, 2015, http://www.jmu.edu/stories/gomad/13-student-giving.shtml

McDearmon, J. T. (2010). What’s in it for me: A qualitative look into the mindset of young alumni non-donors. International Journal Of Educational Advancement, 10(1), 33-47. doi:10.1057/ijea.2010.3

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