Is Solar the Ideal Mechanism to Reinvigorate Alumni Giving?

Anyone engaged in fundraising or alumni relations in higher education will tell you the number of alumni donating to their alma mater is on a 20-year decline. In 1990, 18 percent of college and university alumni gave to their alma mater, according to the Council for Aid to Education. By 2013 that number had been cut in half to less than 9 percent — highlighting a trend that has persisted for more than two decades.

Millennial alumni in particular have reduced their participation rate because of the difficulty of seeing how their financial gift would make a difference. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education found in a recent study that Millennials really want to know where their gift is going, and what difference it makes. The big black hole of ‘annual giving’ is not exciting.

It is interesting to note that young college alumni who are carrying large amounts of debt from student loans have not stopped donating money. They have simply redirected their donations to places where they can see it makes a difference.

With 1.5 million non-profits vying for support for their meaningful initiatives, it is becoming increasingly challenging for higher education institutions to win gifts and engagement from their young alumni. Colleges and universities need to find new ways to inspire alumni giving, and that will require a method of demonstrating the impact of a financial gift.

Development staffs at colleges and universities are always looking for ideas that will motivate donors to give. For capital gifts, they spend a lot of time matching up a project their school needs or wants, with something that donors will want to give to and then they work on how to market that story to the targeted donors who would be most likely to give a gift to support the project.

 Is Solar the Answer?

As younger alumni become more concerned with the impact of their gift, it creates a golden opportunity for the solar industry. Solar electric power (PV) can provide many of the tangible and intangible requirements that serve the needs of both colleges and potential donors. Consider the value proposition of solar from the following perspectives: the alumni donor, the advancement officer, the investment manager, the college administrator, and the fundraiser:

The impact of solar is easy to demonstrate — solar makes it easy to demonstrate the impact of a financial gift and the donor can see the results (in energy produced) of his or her donation. Actual kilowatt-hours produced is routinely displayed on a website or through an app on a mobile device. Other related information such as CO2 avoided or carbon footprint reductions can be calculated and made available as well.

Environmental responsibility is constantly visible — solar panels are often visible on rooftops or multi-purpose buildings and they act as a constant reminder of the commitment the institution of higher learning has made to protect the environment.

Solar lowers operating costs — There are dozens of studies that describe the economic benefits of solar for colleges and universities. Most of them recognize college buildings are significant users of electric power, and the use of power purchase agreements or outright ownership of a solar array can provide: guaranteed rates for electric power, cost savings that contribute to the financial stability of a school, and ease of expandability that can be structured to match capital expenditure plans.

Donor recognition becomes easy — the names of participating donors can easily be inscribed on one of the solar panels, or on a plaque near the solar inter-tie equipment.

College/alumni relationships are strengthened — recruiting millennials to donate and maintain interest in “their solar project” will build a broad base of support among young alumni, which in turn expands the pipeline for major gifts and future campaigns.

Solar installation at Georgetown University

From a technology marketing perspective, I’m not sure how to characterize this type of arrangement. Everyone involved would realize a set of benefits. The donor can see the results (in energy produced and carbon avoided) of his or her donation. The college adopts solar to boost fundraising and in the process gets electrical generation that offsets peak demand at a guaranteed rate. The college administrators can point to a tangible example of environmental responsibility…. oh, and the local utility gets to encourage the use of renewables and stabilize their grid through peak-time production. Wow!

Perhaps I should call this a “three-sided whole product™”  ??

Fundamentally it means defining a compelling whole product where solar is not necessarily the core offering. Solar vendors considering how to create a whole product around solar might discover (in this and other situations) the best answer is to make some other product or service the core, and use solar as a complimentary component.

If the future of giving is in showing your donors the impact of their gift, then rather than asking alumni to support an unspecified cause with an unspecified impact, college administrators and fundraisers should look to solar as a vehicle to boost alumni donations, and enjoy the side benefits of simultaneously improving the school’s reputation while lowering operating costs.

I’d like to hear what others think about this idea.


As owner of High Tech Strategies Inc. Warren makes disruptive technologies such as solar more compelling for mainstream buyers. Warren helps leading companies, associations, non-profits and startups humanize their innovations so they are adopted and put into practice.

In his work at High Tech Strategies, Warren studies the effects of disruptive technology on people, business and society. He has over 20 years experience helping solar and energy management organizations accelerate the adoption of new ideas, programs, products or technologies. Warren is especially skilled in the commercialization of disruptive and emerging technology.

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Warren Schirtzinger has made the understanding of market dynamics surrounding disruptive innovations the core of his life’s work. He is widely recognized for his expertise in solar market development and CleanTech product management. Since 1991, Warren has consulted with leading organizations in the solar industry, and also in high technology. Warren pioneered development of the Marketing Chasm framework that addresses the challenges companies face when transitioning from early adopting to mainstream customers. Highly regarded as a dynamic public speaker, Warren is the founder and CEO of High Tech Strategies, Inc. where he serves as an advisor to solar companies, utilities and energy education organizations, and draws upon best practices derived from his extensive work. Earlier in his career, Warren was a principal at Regis McKenna, Inc., a leading high tech marketing strategy and communications company, and for the decade prior, an engineering and marketing executive in Silicon Valley.

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