After several years of decline, Duke's senior gift participation rate is showing signs of growth.

The Seniors for Duke campaign—which supports the Duke Annual Fund—focuses on fundraising from graduating seniors, who may designate their gift to one of 16 Annual Funds. Between 2005 and 2016, senior gift participation reached a high in 2009, with 69 percent of graduating seniors donating. Gifts have declined since then, however, with only 32 percent of the Class of 2016 giving to the Fund.

Melissa Antaya, director of marketing and communications at Duke Forward, noted in an email that recent administrative changes may have contributed to the decline.

“While there is no singular reason for the decline, one of the biggest challenges has been transition among the Annual Fund team that manages the Seniors for Duke campaign, which affected our ability to communicate effectively with students about the critical role philanthropy plays in their everyday Duke experience,” Antaya wrote.

Several peer institutions have also seen a similar decline, although their senior participation rates have historically been much higher than those at Duke.

Yale University’s Class of 2016 had 72.6 percent participation, a decline from their Class of 2015's 78.1 percent participation—the first time participation had gone below 90 percent. Dartmouth College had 31.3 percent of its senior class participate in 2016, down from 99.9 percent participation in 2010. In both cases, many students reported that they declined to participate due to ongoing concerns about inadequate mental health care at Yale and concerns about administrators at Dartmouth.

Antaya did not provide the monetary totals for the Class of 2016's senior gifts or from any other year.

At Duke, recently implemented initiatives have been tailored to seniors, Antaya wrote. One program, Senior Honors, allows seniors to donate in honor of a faculty member or mentor, with an honorary reception for donors and honorees to be held in late March.

Of the senior donors so far this year, 22 percent have done so through Senior Honors, Antaya explained.

The Annual Fund has also worked to engage alumni and last semester had ten alumni from the Class of 2002 pledge to give $100 to the Annual Fund following the first 217 donations from seniors this semester.

Such efforts appear to have been successful, as Antaya said that gifts in the senior class have increased compared to last year. At the time of publication, 11 percent, or 186 students, in the Class of 2017 have donated to Seniors for Duke. At the same time last year, 80 students in the Class of 2016 had donated. 

Antaya noted that she also attributes some success to new leadership in the Annual Fund. Among other changes, the Annual Fund hired Kelly Smith in 2015 to serve as program coordinator for young alumni and student programs.

Since then, Smith has led efforts to recruit and manage student volunteers as well as coordinate programs and events for seniors, Antaya wrote.

“With consistency in the Annual Fund team, we now have an opportunity to do a better job communicating earlier about the value of giving back and emphasizing the importance of participation—even if it’s just $5,” she wrote.

Although senior gifts have declined recently, donations to the Annual Fund as a whole have actually risen in the past few years, with $37.5 million raised for the Annual Fund last year, Antaya explained.

“We are incredibly grateful to the thousands of alumni, parents, friends and students who choose to support Duke,” Antaya wrote. “Thanks to them, Duke has achieved four consecutive years of record-breaking fundraising.”