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‘One size fits all’ no longer applies for effective higher ed donor communications

Generational differences should guide today’s philanthropy marketing efforts
University Business, August 2018
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at University of Kentucky Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt). 
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at University of Kentucky Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt). 

Have you noticed a recent change in fashion? I’m talking about a subtle yet important change with ball caps. That’s right—ball caps.

In the market for one recently, I scoured a sporting goods store’s display of ball caps, and discovered one small, but significant, difference. For many years, ball caps came with the tag sewn inside the inner rim: “one size fits all.”

So, regardless if you had a small head or a large one like mine, you could take a chance purchasing a ball cap that would hopefully fit—even if that meant the adjustable strap was stretched to its last hole. Being sensitive to changes in the marketplace, sporting goods manufacturers now produce ball caps with the tag: “one size fits most.”

That’s an important difference as ball cap designers have recognized that people and their interests and needs are not all the same—particularly the shape and size of their heads.

This same lesson is a relevant one, too, for higher ed philanthropy, as well as for alumni and parental marketing and communications efforts, thanks to the seismic sociological changes that a multigenerational America is now experiencing.

Changing times

For more than 80 years, our nation has been guided by the values, needs, interests and cultural backgrounds of the generations known as baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the silent generation (born before 1946). Until the emergence of GenX and millennials, silents and boomers dictated much of the marketplace’s consumer demands.

In response, colleges and universities developed academic programs, student services, messaging, special events and facilities that appealed to this massive generation that was spawned by a post-World War II baby boom. But times have changed and so must the ways we communicate with multigenerational donors.

We must be ever mindful of messages and themes that best resonate with baby boomers and millennials, and strategically communicate and market to them accordingly.

In a 2018 Pew Research Center white paper, “How Millennials today compare with their grandparents 50 years ago,” authors Richard Fry, Ruth Igielnik and Eileen Patten noted that this new generation of adults has become “more detached from major institutions such as political parties, religion, the military and marriage.

At the same time, the racial and ethnic makeup of the country has changed, college attainment has spiked and women have greatly increased their participation in the nation’s workforce.”

Among a few of the generational differences noted by Fry, Igielnik and Patten were:

  • A greater share of millennial women have a bachelor’s degree than their male counterparts and are much more likely to be working (a reversal from the silent generation)
  • A greater share of millennials today live in metropolitan areas than did silents and baby boomers when they were young adults.

Targeting a diverse population

In light of these demographic changes, we must take a hard look at how we strategically communicate with our donors, alumni and parents, while targeting their generational interests and values. No longer can we adhere to a “one size fits all” communication strategy if we expect to engage our multigenerational supporters.

Remember to always market to your audience. This by no means is a new, revolutionary idea. When you apply the right ingredients to your donor communications, you will always turn out an effort that not only is attractive, but connects with the tastes and appetite of your supporters. 


Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at University of Kentucky Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).