Parent, Adult, Child – what can the insights of psychotherapy bring to alumni relations and fundraising?

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:

  1. I’m OK and you are OK.
  2. I’m OK and you are not OK.
  3. I’m not OK and you are OK.
  4. 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?



Filed under Fundraising, Life and big stuff, Universities, University fundraising

8 responses to “Parent, Adult, Child – what can the insights of psychotherapy bring to alumni relations and fundraising?

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s an incredibly interesting piece. I’ve had a few conversations with Shannon Doolittle on the link between childhood trauma and propensity to give – – and I think you have identified an important point.

    Alumni fundraising offers a window in to part of the mind of a donor that doesn’t necessarily appear in traditional fundraising. Yes, I’ve seen complaint letters and I’ve received calls that are about a personal grievance rather than what the charity has actually done, but they are rare. Complaints are normally about hygiene factors.

    We put together a DM appeal for a school recently and we had rather poor results. We re-thought the approach and tried a different angle. Again we had a poor result. It was only in the wash-up that we came to realise that the recipients of our appeal (who attended the school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s) had a very different image of the school than we saw during our visits and many were angered by both approaches. Yes we received many donations, but not at the level we might expect. But we were also reminded by many alumni of the failings of the school system in the post-war UK. I’d imagine their feelings were stronger than university alumni.

    Can we build a giving relationship amongst those who experienced their university as critical or abandoning? It would be hard. But my own experience of psychotherapy would suggest it might be a long journey but we could learn some incredible stuff on the way!

    Great post.

  2. Really nice, Adrian. We boil into two segments then, don’t we: the generally positively inclined alum and those who don’t reflect on their school experience as halcyon. The first group dictates a strategy of maximizing yield while the second mandates that we find a kinder, less ask-centered approach to engagement that builds a new bond. Tough to do, but it’s there. Keep this line of writing up!!!

  3. Hi both, thanks for the comments! That’s a fascinating story Mark, and rather confirms to me my ‘snow globe’ hypothesis – which is to say that alumni seal up their memories of an institution when they leave, and their view of it remains pretty static over the years. So alumni relations staff and alumni fundraisers should always remember that the institution they know now is very rarely the one alumni remember!

    And it also makes it crucial for the alumni team to know the history of the institution, warts and all, so they can have some way of anticipating where in the alumni base the problems may come…

    The challenge, of course, is that it’s generally only the fundraising ask that provokes strong enough feelings in people for them to let us know which of the two segments they fall into. So I would suggest that the way we respond to these complaints is crucial – not with a bland corporate response, but with a human one that lets them know they have been heard.

    Berne also talks about the concept of ‘strokes’ – which are basically everyday social transactions we share with each other. His language to describe them is very engaging. He divides them into positives, which he calls ‘warm fuzzies’, and negatives, which he calls ‘cold pricklies’.

    One thing he observed with people was that if two people had not met for some length of time, they would engage in a proportionally greater number of strokes than those who were used to seeing each other day to day.

    That has a lot of implications for alumni relations practice as well, I think!

  4. Rachael Harris

    I love this Adrian! I’ve recently been reading a book about Berne’s theories and find it really fascinating. Never considered the parallels with fundraising though!

  5. Pingback: A Recent Alumni Engagement Retrospective - The QuadBlog | The QuadBlog

  6. Simon Buttenshaw

    Great post, thanks Adrian! I wonder how all this might influence alumni relations and fundraising strategy? Here’s a couple of thoughts:

    1. The work we do in fundraising to enhance the ‘student experience’ (that always sounds to me like some kind of theme park) puts us in a virtuous circle: the more we can do in this area, the better time students have, and in turn the better response we have from alumni. I think there’s something here about actively involving students in fundraising too, that leads to a greater propensity to give as alumni. Its no coincidence that our best giving rate comes when we ring former student callers!
    2. If alumni really do ‘seal up their memories of an institution when they leave’ then there is little point in relying on the Alumni Relations office to build engagement. Perhaps the real issue is that memories are not just sealed up, but they fade away. I speak to alumni who say ‘Nottingham was in my past, I’ve moved on’. Looking at it optimistically, the digital age puts our offices in a far better position to nurture relationships post-graduation. E-mentoring, CPD and other subject-specific engagement, continued involvement with clubs and societies – these can all be developed in order to maintain a genuine and warm relationship between institution and alum, not only sealing the memories, but building on them. Ideally, we want to move alumni from ‘I’m OK and you’re OK’ to ‘I’m OK, you’re still brilliant, here’s my latest gift and see you at the open day when I bring my kids round’.

    • Hi Simon – thanks! On your first point, here’s an excellent article I read last week on what universities need to do to cultivate a culture of philanthropy. Some really great points in there:

      On your second point, I don’t think the ‘snowglobe’ implies there isn’t a point to alumni offices – just that we should understand that our first job is to try and connect with people where they are, rather than where we are, if that makes sense. We need to find that spark of nostalgia and use it as a way to reconnect people with our institution as it is today…

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