Between 2000 and 2010, parent giving to colleges and universities rose nearly 50 percent. As this trend continues to gain momentum, higher education institutions are searching for best practices to engage parents and capitalize on this growing revenue stream. As of 2013, more than 500 colleges and universities across the U.S. have parent programs, 82 percent of which carry out active fundraising—a dramatic increase from just 44 percent in 2003. A great deal of these programs are quite new with many being less than 10 years old; however, as with all philanthropic initiatives, understanding your donor base and building relationships are at the core of successful parent engagement.
To help institutions start or strengthen their own parent programs, we developed an overview of parental preferences and recommendations for cultivating this critical donor segment. For further sector insights, view our recent articles and research on higher education.
Understanding Today’s Parents
To begin, we need to understand who the parents of current college students are and how these parents are involved in the lives of their students and their respective colleges. Although many fall into the baby boomer generation, parents today are increasingly more likely to be part of the Generation X cohort. Generally speaking, boomers regard authority very highly and ask for the same respect in return, making it important to appeal to title and status. Gen X parents are much more involved in their children’s everyday lives than boomers but possess less patience and flexibility when dealing with college representatives. Unlike boomers, Gen Xers are far more cynical and have less respect for authority. These parents are likely to have gone to college themselves and have raised their children with greater expectations of attending college. In this regard, Gen X parents are more inclined to make requests concerning their students and demand quick responses when dealing with university representatives. When interacting with parents, it is important to recognize that increasingly more and more parents will display the habits and demands of the Gen X cohort, and fundraising strategies must adapt accordingly.
Exploring New Trends in Parental Involvement
The attitudes of Gen Xers are reflected in how parents are involved in the lives of their current college students. As Gen X is the first generation directly involved in the tech and communication boom, these parents are integrated into the lives of their children like never before. Several reports highlight the unprecedented closeness of millennials with their parents and immediate families, and this contributes to the recent rapid growth of parent programs. This trend is also tied to greater student well-being and deeper engagement in educationally-purposeful activities. This is important because, down the road, higher engagement as a student leads to higher engagement as an alumnus.
Meeting Parents Where They Are
In considering this heightened parental involvement, it’s important to distinguish what propels parents towards engagement. Parents have an institutional affinity due to their child’s enrollment and, because of this, “parents instantly become potential stakeholders.” This same sentiment is reflected by several practitioners of parent and family programs who “stressed the importance of viewing parents as stakeholders in their students’ educational and social experiences.” Although parents may not be alumni, they will give back to their children’s institutions if they believe in the mission and values of the organization.
To this end, colleges and universities need to provide parents with substantive experiences that create positive associations between themselves and the institution. Fundraising programs should focus on organizing volunteer opportunities, parent councils, and other means of providing meaningful experiences. With Gen X parents, there is ample opportunity to do just this because they already have a disposition towards active involvement. Programs should include them in volunteer opportunities but communicate what policies and decisions are out of their hands. Again, these parents are much more integrated into the lives of their students, and this should be leveraged for substantial and participative engagement.
Developing More Effective Communication & Parent Events
Engaging parents starts with effective communication. According to Robert Sevier, Senior Vice President of the higher education marketing agency Stamats, “The overall goal of parent communications is to strike a balance between information and involvement.” Institutions should keep parents informed as their students navigate important milestones, but information always should be accompanied by opportunities for involvement.
In addition, logistical concerns can present hurdles to effective communication with parents. Many leaders in parent and family programs share the sentiment that decentralized communication is a primary obstacle to engaging with parents. For example, parents often need to communicate with many different areas within the university, such as the bursar’s office, financial aid, student affairs, and more. By establishing a central point of contact for parental communication, questions can be answered more efficiently, and it will be easier to coordinate engagement efforts across departments. In this way, institutions can provide more personalized communications. As institutions think about centralizing communications for personalization, they should consider doing the same with fundraising. Many schools use mass solicitations efforts, such as direct mail or telemarketing, but parents with a propensity to give often don’t respond to these tactics. Rather than attempting to engage with parents en masse, institutions should use tailored messages that focus on their mission or projects.
Technology provides an efficient means for customizing communication with parents—if used properly. The National Survey of College and University Parent Programs is a longitudinal study of various institutions across the U.S. The 2015 survey identified an ongoing trend of increasing technology-driven communications with parents, particularly through Facebook. However, the survey also revealed that these efforts rank among the least successful, with reasons including “websites can be difficult to update” and “Facebook creates online communities that can become problematic.”
Instead of discounting technology, parent programs should refine how they use it for better results. Millennials have grown up in an age of digital communication, and their parents are largely comfortable with technology as well. A 2014 report reveals that 69 percent of parents rated college websites as the most influential resource for college search, with 51 percent of parents indicating that they prefer web-based resources for learning about colleges. As such, parent and family programs need to invest in intuitive, accessible online communication resources. Schools should consider developing a parent web community distinct from alumni pages on which parents can discuss issues specific to their interests.
Although technology is an important tool, in-person communication is always preferred. Therefore, events remain a strong way to engage with parents, as evidenced by the upward trend in in-person contact for family members. Events do not have to be profit-driven and can “bring visibility to your organization, mobilize and expand its donor base, or highlight a particular issue of special importance to your members.” Moreover, parent and family programs should leverage existing institutional events. For instance, programs can host receptions before or after arts and athletic events. Programs should also consider holding regional events, which are usually low cost, require less travel, and allow participants to meet other parents in their region.
Integrating Parent Programs into the Organizational Structure
Many schools struggle with the basic question of where to house parent and family programs within their institutional framework. According to the 2015 National Survey of College and University Parent Programs, 52.8 percent of programs surveyed were part of student affairs, while 29.2 percent were in an advancement, foundation, or alumni relations office—down from 37.8 percent in 2003. Additionally, parent and family programs are increasingly divided between multiple departments that share responsibilities. This emerging trend can make unified messaging more challenging but also represents greater integration of parent and family engagement into the institutional framework.
An article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the Office of Parent Relations be placed in student affairs, as student affairs is best suited to answer parents’ questions about their students. Regardless of where these programs are housed, parents will be in contact with many departments during their child’s enrollment. Consequently, it is most important to have a consistent message throughout the institution. Moreover, a close relationship between student affairs, parent programs, and advancement is essential—parents are much more likely to give when they are satisfied with their child’s experience.
Leveraging Parent Boards & Associations for Greater Engagement
To further engage parents, colleges and universities can establish robust parent boards and associations. These groups directly involve parents in the institution and give them the leadership opportunities they often seek. Additionally, parent boards and associations provide an avenue for strong buy-in to the institution’s mission and give parents a stake in its success.
From a fundraising perspective, parent boards are important because they showcase the time, dedication, and giving of parents who believe in the institutional mission. Their dedication provides confidence for prospective donors and assures them that their gift is worth making. When establishing such groups, institutions should ensure they are representative of the student body in terms of majors, classes, extracurricular activities, race, and gender. Schools should seek to keep parents informed about future plans and opportunities and remain open to advice from the board members. Since asking for money can be uncomfortable for some, soliciting in-kind gifts can be a good alternative for parent volunteers.
Implementing Successful Prospect Tracking & Solicitation Strategies
While engagement is critical, cultivating parents into donors is difficult without proper prospect tracking and solicitation strategies. The 2015 National Survey of College and University Parent Programs revealed a troubling trend in the use of surveys and assessments. In 2015, just 42 percent of programs indicated that they were using these tools, down from more than 60 percent in 2013. By tracking parent responses to surveys and assessments, institutions can better respond to changes in parent concerns and shift their resource allotment accordingly. Using these tools allows institutions to tailor engagement methods to their needs rather than adopt practices that may not work with their specific constituency.
Parent interest peaks during the first year of their student’s enrollment and dissipates dramatically following graduation. Given the short four-year solicitation timeline, it is incredibly important for institutions to segment and screen parents. Because of this, prospective donors need to be identified and engaged quickly and efficiently. That said, cultivating parents is generally much easier than cultivating alumni. Institutions should begin the solicitation process during a student’s freshman year. The Department of Development Research at Lafayette College suggests obtaining lists from the admissions and financial aid departments (if possible) and sending out a “Family Information Form” to gain information on parent businesses and their alma maters. Using the responses, institutions can categorize and tier the list based on financial aid information and other relevant factors such as legacy.
After identifying prospects, programs should engage them with a focus on parent interests and the shortened solicitation timeline. The Education Advisory Board recommends training fundraisers to cater specifically to parents. In contrast to the alumni cultivation process, which typically occurs over many years, parent cultivation can culminate in a senior capstone gift after only four years. The senior capstone gift is often the largest gift opportunity. Fundraisers should introduce it during a student’s first year and build up to it over the following years of enrollment. Involving students in the process has been found to have large appeal, such as gifts made in honor of or in conjunction with a child.
In a similar vein, programs should encourage parent-to-parent solicitation. Andrew Sudol, Director of UCLA’s parent program, comments that “the peer-to-peer ask is always the strongest ask you can make. Parents can access their peers in the community more easily, and they are very good at communicating the message that a gift will help their child.” To implement this, programs can take a project-specific approach, with parents soliciting other parents for targeted projects or initiatives. In this way, parents can easily see how a gift will impact their child’s experience, and having the ask come from a fellow parent makes it that much more powerful.
Given the rise in parent giving and increased involvement of parents in the lives of their students, it is crucial for higher education institutions to pay close attention to their parent and family programs. By establishing more effective communications to keep parents informed, providing opportunities for involvement, and implementing segmented prospect tracking strategies, universities will be able to capitalize on this growing donor population.
A Checklist for Your Parent Giving Program
- Are you engaging parents during their students’ freshman year?
- Are you providing substantive opportunities for engagement?
- Do you have a centralized point of communication for parents?
- Have you created a parent web community?
- Do you have events for parents apart from family weekend programming?
- Is your messaging to parents consistent across your student affairs, parent programs, and advancement department?
- Do you have an active parent board or association?
- Are you using surveys and assessments to tailor your messaging?
- Are you screening and segmenting potential donors as soon as students are enrolled?
- Are you tailoring your solicitation timeline towards a senior capstone gift?
- Are you implementing parent-to-parent solicitation?
 Parent and Family Engagement in Higher Education (2015); CASE - One Big Happy Family (2011); Exploring the Parent and Family Relations Office (2011); NPR - Phone Home: Tech Draws Parents, College Kids Closer (2012)