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Alum Seeks to Modernize the Alumni Community and Boost University Fundraising

by Muriel Vega

You have major pride for your alma mater when a championship game rolls around, but do you put your wallet where your mouth is? Probably not. University donations are at an all-time low these days (only 33 percent of Yale alumni put up any donation at all in 2015, for example), but this may be because most current alumni platforms are not set up for easy online giving. This played a big factor at Virginia’s Sweet Briar College as alumni fundraising was important to the college, which announced it was closing in 2015.

William Ballance, formerly of Springbot, was at the helm some of the grassroots campaigns to help the school get back on its feet. “I wanted to help, so I started a Hampden-Sydney (the brother school of Sweet Briar) campaign to show solidarity, and the support was overwhelming,” says Ballance.

He quickly realized that there is a gap between millennial alumni and the current giving system universities have in place. Many are set up only for snail mail and paper checks (and let’s be honest — when was the last time you wrote a paper check?). He created Alum to bring alumni relations to the 21st century — with an app to meet and catch up with other alumni and easily give to your alma mater.

Ballance talks to Hypepotamus about why universities should encourage graduates to jump on Alum, why micro-donations are the future of fundraising, and why an organic social experience can lead to more donations.

Funding or bootstrapped?

Alum has been bootstrapped so far, but we are considering raising a $500K angel round to expand the platform and ramp up sales for the next school year.

How’d you get the idea for it?

I never thought I’d be in alumni relations. In 2015, Sweet Briar College, a historic women’s college in Virginia, announced it was closing. I attended what was essentially the brother college, the all-men’s Hampden-Sydney, and the students from Sweet Briar had been our close friends.

My original HSC for SBC campaign led to old classmates — both recent alums and some all the way back to the 50’s — reconnecting and sharing nostalgic photos and stories. It became a place not only for news and updates regarding Sweet Briar, but general conversation, networking, fundraising, and most importantly an uplifting retreat from the dreadful news that their beloved Sweet Briar was closing.

I thought there had to be a way to make alumni relations more efficient, more fun, and less transactional. And that’s how Alum was born. Ultimately, Sweet Briar was saved due to the amazing grassroots efforts by their passionate alumni base. The school recently welcomed its largest applicant pool in history and continues her mission of educating young women.

What problem are you solving?

We are solving two problems. First, it is incredibly hard for alumni to stay connected with their overall global alumni network at large. Shortly after graduation many alumni lose touch and ultimately miss out on opportunities: both professionally and socially. Perhaps they move to a different city or country and lose their core inner circle, or maybe they’re abroad and want to be involved on Game Day. There are a lot of reasons for alumni to stay in touch outside of just jobs.

Secondly, alumni relations has not been updated for Millennials and Gen-Z. Most schools still primarily use snail mail, paper checks, and phonathons. Our platform makes it easy for schools to run both mobile fundraising and engagement campaigns, while always taking a fun social-first approach.

Nostalgia is big factor with alumni. How do Alum’s features help Alumni stay connected?

Alumni are one of the most passionate demographics around. Walk through any parking lot and nearly every car has a sticker or license plate frame. When two alumni cross paths on the street there’s an instant connection. We want to recreate that organic experience but place it in the palm of your hand.

Alum rethinks alumni relations with a social-first mindset, specifically around chatting, meeting, and giving. Our primary focus is to expand the platform around these three core concepts to make an incredibly engaging and useful mobile experience.

How can colleges and universities benefit from the easy to donate feature of Alum? How can it improve alumni relations?

A big problem that every school currently has is figuring out how to properly engage young alumni. It’s not uncommon for young alumni giving rates to be as low as 2 percent.

Alum focuses on affordable micro-donations (by credit/debit card or Bitcoin) in an easy-to-use mobile interface. We make college giving a fast, easy, and frictionless experience, which encourages alumni to participate whenever they’re feeling nostalgic and not just on an official Giving Day.

What’s your revenue model?

Initially, Alum will make money by charging high schools and colleges an annual subscription, plus retaining a percentage of donations. Looking into the future, there are a number of opportunities to expand the revenue streams within the app while providing more value for both alumni and for schools. Currently, Alum is free for alumni and available for iOS.

Who are your competitors and how do you stand out?

Alumni relations is an incredibly antiquated space, but it’s starting to heat up. The leader in the industry is Blackbaud, a publicly traded company that has been around since 1981 and has a market cap of $3.6 billion.

Our philosophy is that it is not enough to only build alumni management software so schools can just periodically ask for donations — especially with the millennial and Gen Z demographic. Instead, starting at the core, an organic social experience will lead to a more engaged alumni base with higher participation rates, ultimately increasing giving over the alumni lifecycle.

We’re the first to combine the two: the intimacy of a private social experience with the ease of mobile donations and engagement.

How does ATL/the Southeast weave into your story?

I grew up on the coast of Southeast Virginia, but came to Atlanta after college. All of my friends who were from Atlanta really enjoyed growing up here, so I thought it would be a good place to plant roots. When I learned that Atlanta had more trees than any other major city (so beautiful) plus a growing tech startup scene, I was sold. There’s an amazing blend of creativity and charm that runs through the city.

What’s next for Alum? 

The alumni market is huge and very passionate, which means there are tons of ways our platform can provide value to not only current alumni and schools, but to the next generation of alumni.

I’m especially excited about the ways we can tie-in data science, predictive modeling, and machine learning to optimize engagement, fundraising, and alumni-to-alumni connections. I’m also very excited about how we can become an integral part of Game Day.

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