Alumni fundraising is a bit different. Of course with any kind of fundraising you’re going to get angry responses, it goes with the territory. But sometimes those of us who work in the fundraising offices of universities get responses so out of proportion to the nature of our appeals, that it does make us sit and wonder what on earth is going on?
Before I became a fundraiser, I was a couple of other things. I was a semi-professional singer, but also, when I realised I wasn’t on track to become the next Peter Pears, I started training as a counsellor and psychotherapist.
In the course of my training I came across the ideas of Eric Berne, and Transactional Analysis, or TA for short. And so, many years later, as I started reading these appeal responses full of anger and a personal sense of grievance that we had dared to ask for a donation it began to occur to me, “Oh, these are classic crossed transactions!”
So, what’s Berne’s insight, and how can it help us understand our alumni better?
Well, Berne’s hypothesis is that there are three ego-states which we all move between, more or less fluidly, moment to moment in our daily lives:
The Parent, which is the internalisation of ideas, beliefs and values we have taken from our parents, families and other authority figures in our lives.
The Child, which is the internalisation of our own childhood self as we processed the input from our parents, families and other authority figures
The Adult, a more neutral ego-state, that corresponds to our more rational decision-making persona
Each of these ego-states affects the others, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our own personal histories.
For example, someone who has experienced love, affection and prizing of themselves in their childhood is likely to have internalised a Nurturing Parent ego-state, and a corresponding Free Child.
Someone who has experienced the opposite is more likely to have internalised a Criticising Parent and Adapted Child.
The Parent and Child ego-states can have profound effects on the ability of the Adult ego-state to function freely, or even at all.
The nature of our ego-states lead to 4 basic ‘life-positions’ that Berne suggests underpin all our subsequent transactions with others:
- I’m OK and you are OK.
- I’m OK and you are not OK.
- I’m not OK and you are OK.
- I’m not OK and you are not OK.
We may hold one of these positions consistently in all our dealings with the world, or we may switch between them in different circumstances.
I hope it’s starting to become clear how the university – alumni relationship may be a bit more psychologically loaded than donor – charity relationships in the wider sector?
Because if we accept Berne’s hypotheses, it would seem to naturally place us and our alumni in a Parent – Child ego-state relationship, dating back to their time as students.
Have we been perceived as Nurturing parents – or Criticising, even Abandoning, parents by our alumni?
Because, if Berne’s structure is valid, this may govern whether, when we subsequently attempt to reconnect, we receive a joyful Free Child response in return, or a sullen and angry Adapted Child jab.
And how could we work with this better in the way we communicate with our alumni?