How to convert more Applicants into enrolled Students

    My job in higher ed: Kerstan Ryan, Arizona State University

    Kerstan Ryan tells us about her role in donor relations at ASU and explains what education means to her
    Last updated:
    February 14, 2024

    Kerstan is Associate Director of Donor Relations at ASU Foundation for A New American University. She tells us about the challenges she faces and how the university attempts to keep their alumni engaged.

    What are your main responsibilities as Associate Director of Donor Relations?

    ASU is one of the largest universities in the United States. We have 100,000 students overall. I work for the ASU Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organisation.

    My main goals and responsibilities are acknowledgements. I make sure anyone who gives to the university is adequately recognised. I work primarily with major donors, which means gifts from $100,000 anywhere up to $25 million.

    I also oversee the scholarships department. We have about five scholarship programmes that are donor-funded. Our scholarships each have between 30 and 40 students and most are targeted to specific demographics.

    For example, we have one donor who funds foster youth and orphans, and one who funds students from a low-income area in Phoenix, who are mostly first-generation Hispanic students. We also have some merit-based scholarship programmes as well.

    What are the main challenges in your role?

    We are a decentralised university and we're very large. For instance, our college of arts and sciences has 40,000 students, which is the size of a lot of institutions. Given the size of the student base, it’s a challenge to make sure our communications are consistent across all of our units.

    What are the most rewarding parts?

    Recognising our donors and what they've been able to provide our students.

    It’s very rewarding to work with the students, too. To watch them grow and receive a higher education they wouldn't otherwise have been able to receive because of their economic inequality or their ethnicity. They're able to persevere, become the first generation to graduate college and set an example for their families. They prove that education really can transform who you are and help you be the person you're supposed to be.

    In terms of your community of donors, how important is ASU’s alumni network?

    I think that's a misconception that alumni will be a university’s major donor base. It's not true at ASU: our alumni give around 11% of all donations.

    We have a whole office in our foundation dedicated to corporate donation foundations. They make up the bulk of our fundraising. We have a lot of individual donors as well. We then have a lot of community members and parents of students who make up the rest of our donor base.

    What are the distinctive qualities of ASU alumni?

    The majority of ASU alumni have graduated during the tenure of the university’s current president, Dr Michael M Crow. Most of our alumni are millennials and have graduated between 2002 to the present. Our alumni are mostly first-generation students and a lot of them are Arizonan: we have about 200,000 alumni who are within 30 miles of the campus.

    In theory, having our alumni so close by should make it easier to keep them engaged, but in reality, it doesn't. Students and alumni are increasingly becoming less interested in attending physical events.

    Accordingly, we're planning an increasing amount of online events, including webinars. We do an annual online giving day called Sun Devil Giving Day. It's held in March and this will be the fifth year. It's an online campaign utilising social media and emails which lets us reach people wherever they are in the world.

    Do you have tips for how universities should communicate with their alumni network?

    My biggest tip is to ask your alumni how they want to be communicated with. Universities often try to groupthink. We’ve started doing very strategic surveying online and asking focus groups key questions. These questions include: what do you want? Why do you give? What inspires you to give? How do you feel connected?

    You’ve worked in donor relations and giving for six years. How has the HE landscape changed during that period?

    The biggest trend is onboarding on social media. Figuring out what our presence should be on those platforms, what we communicate and how. Another trend is long-term campaigns. Comprehensive fundraising campaigns that last over, say, a ten-year period.

    The other major trend is the effort to have personal connections. Throughout our current campaign, we've had 260,000 donors. We have to ask ourselves: how do we make a personal connection with them? Are we using the right systems and databases to collect personal information? How do we provide a personal experience but also maintain communication with the masses?

    What has education meant to you?

    Education has meant everything to me. Without my education, I would not have been able to have the opportunities and the experiences I've been able to. These include studying abroad, experiencing other cultures and being able to open my mind and understand the world.

    A lot of Americans don't necessarily know that there's a lot more out there, but education really opens that up. It helps you be the best version of yourself and a better citizen of the world.


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