This year’s alumni reunions season generated a lot of discussion and reflection. We wanted to share what we’ve learned about throwing alumni the best party possible.
1. Choose your hashtag
Alumni will use your hashtag to share their love for their alma mater.
In an episode of Advancement Live, Lisa Lee described Swarthmore’s efforts to promote its reunion weekend celebration of the college’s 150th birthday with the hashtag #swat150. To build community excitement about the event, Swarthmore’s communications office began using #swat150 six months prior. When June rolled around, alumni knew exactly how to join the celebration.
2. Let alumni take the stage
You'll engage your alumni better if you let them tell their own stories. This is the selfie era, after all.
Some helpful examples:
Georgetown asked alumni to share their memories of living on campus and collected their responses in a video. The result is both inspiring and true to alumni experience.
Oberlin hid squishy squirrels around campus in the hopes that alumni would take #obieselfies and share them on social media.
The stories your community tells often feel more genuine than anything your communications team can produce. Know when to help alumni tell those stories and when to be hands off.
3. further development goals
Just don’t be annoying about it.
Keith Hannon at Cornell writes,
“The question should not be ‘what’s the ROI of social media’ but rather ‘what are we prepared to do with the ROI of social media?’”
The same set of questions applies to reunions: rather than asking, “what’s the ROI of reunions,” ask “what are we prepared to do with the ROI of reunions?” How will your development team follow up on the leads generated by your reunions weekend?
Will you send a follow-up mailing? Will you ask attendees to volunteer at future reunions? Will you change your donation appeals to those who attend?
4. Have something for everyone
Craft events for specific alumni demographics to complement your traditional centerpieces:
Networking events and panels appeal to young and established alumni alike and form connections that last beyond reunion weekend.
Offering childcare for alumni with children might not be feasible, but parents will appreciate any programming that gives them a break.
Alumni will remember the events that appeal to them on an individual level more than they’ll remember a generic campus tour. This is your chance to celebrate your community one demographic at a time and make your alumni feel appreciated.
5. Leverage your volunteers
Your volunteers are your superheroes.
Organizing a reunion is a lot of work. The more oversight you give your alumni volunteers, the more engaged they’ll be, the better they’ll be able to enlist and engage other alumni, and the less work you’ll have to do yourself.
Ashley Weeks Cart at Williams explained how alumni volunteers make Williams’s reunions possible in an Advancement Live session on reunions. Every year, Ashley hosts a training weekend for alumni volunteers. That investment up front pays off enormously for Williams come June.
“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
Ask people favors, and they’ll warm up to you. Alumni who are sick of receiving calls from the annual fund may jump at the chance to give back to their community in a non-financial way.
6. Get current students involved
Having students on hand to help out at reunions has three clear benefits:
- Confused alumni find what they need.
- Students who interact with alumni before they graduate develop a network and become successful and engaged alumni.
- Alumni love talking to current students.
Ashley Weeks Cart at Williams describes Williams’s “Reunions Rangers” program, in which Williams hires a few dozen students to help guide alumni around campus and ensure that things are running smoothly:
“Alumni speak very highly of the time they get to spend with those [student] rangers…Those conversations with students are some of the most meaningful and impactful moments that they have because they get to see what the Williams of today is like through these student workers.”
When alumni and current students network—or just hang out—everyone benefits. Alumni get to relive their college experience vicariously and find people they can offer advice and help, students find mentors and connections, and the institution forges a stronger, more generous community. Students who receive help from alumni are more likely to give back themselves.
7. Make time for organic interaction
People want time to just catch up. They want to feel at home again.
In perhaps the most honest blog post about reunions we’ve ever read, InsideHigherEd blogger Susan Doherty shares her distaste for busy reunions schedules:
“Our 25th reunion, in 1999, was the worst…I swore I was done—I would be happy to get together with friends individually, but these group functions were too much.”
Certainly not what you want to hear.
How could Susan’s alma mater have avoided alienating its alumni? Let’s examine each of her complaints.
“The tours and mini-classes for which I had signed up were nothing more than hard-sell fundraisers.”
If you’re reading from your usual fundraising script, you’re doing it wrong. Reunions are not fundraisers. Otherwise we’d call them refundunionraisers. Or something.
“The campus was so built up as to be unrecognizable.”
Having current students to guide alumni not only prevents them from feeling lost—and who wants to feel lost in a place they used to call home?—but also gives alumni a chance to see that their alma mater hasn’t really changed all that much. Campuses change, but people stay the same.
“I would be happy to get together with friends individually, but these group functions were too much.”
Don’t overschedule your alumni. Make sure that your group functions leave plenty of room for people to hang out and catch up.
8. Give alumni something to walk away with
It doesn’t have to be a mug.
It could be a series of networking contacts, newfound faith in the direction their alma mater is taking, or a rekindled friendship. If your alumni aren’t leaving their reunion at the end of the weekend feeling as excited as they were when they showed up on campus for orientation as a freshman, ask yourself, “What aren’t we giving them?”
Set goals for yourself, your team, and your institution—five hundred updated alumni addresses, ten new major gift leads, and so on. But also set goals for your alumni. What should they be getting out of their reunion? Hopefully not just a bumper sticker and a phone call asking them for money.
9. Be human
Don’t try to entertain alumni in the abstract—just think about throwing a party for your friends. And don’t let the traditional way of doing things get in the way of doing things in a human way. Just because your office has been throwing reunions the same way for decades doesn’t mean you can’t improve.
Your alumni come to reunions because of the strong bonds they formed when they were in school. They return to campus for friendship and community. Don't forget that.