Alumni Association from Scratch: How Bennington Is Building Its 'Alumni Cooperative'

Bennington College logo

For years, Bennington College operated without a structured alumni association.

Now they have an ambitious and innovative plan to create a new one with the participation and input of their alumni community. They call the association the Bennington Alumni Cooperative, in an homage to the school's foundational ethos. The Cooperative sets an example for all schools working to adapt the structure of their alumni associations to their own culture.

We asked Bennington's Director of Alumni Programs Marie Leahy and Vice President for Institutional Advancement Paige Bartel to tell us more about their ongoing efforts to build the Cooperative. They presented on the subject at the CASE D1 Conference in February.

Could you give us a brief history of the Bennington alumni association and Bennington Alumni Cooperative?

Bennington College, founded in 1932, had a variety of traditional alumnae/i volunteer opportunities including active regional volunteer committees, admissions volunteers, fundraising volunteers, and class agents from the 1940 through the 1990s. In the late 1990s, Bennington Trustees approved the dissolution of the alumni association seats on the board and requested, due to financial constraints, the restructuring of the alumni association. This in effect disbanded the structure, and for many years no replacement organization took its place.

In 2007, seeking a new generation of engaged alumni volunteers, the College introduced the Next Pioneers Steering Committee, which seeks leadership donors of $1000+ from alumni of the 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s. Following on the heels of the launch of the Next Pioneers, an early conception of Alumni Cooperative developed in 2008 to engage volunteers from a range of class years and US regions. The 27-member committee focused on alumni engagement through events.

Why did you decide to launch the Bennington Alumni Cooperative?

When Mariko Silver became president in the July 2013 after 25 years of service of the previous president, Elizabeth Coleman, she gave the mandate to expand the Bennington network, seeking alumni involvement to help make Bennington “BIG.” President Silver endorsed the idea of reinvigorated alumni involvement in all ways: engagement, giving, and partnering in generating new resources. With that in mind, the Alumni Relations and Institutional Advancement team had a clear understanding that the structure must resonate with the educational, cultural, and social values of a Bennington experience.

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In order to establish a sustainable and inclusive program, the Alumni Cooperative will grow in three phases over the coming three years:

  • Phase one. Winter, 2015-Winter, 2016 We have developed volunteer committees in four cities where we have the largest concentrations of alumni: Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco Bay Area. Although we are starting out in these cities, we have also looked to create and support alumni activities, programs, and collaborations in other regions together with the College staff.
  • Phase twoSpring, 2016 Launch Alumni Cooperatives in Portland, OR Seattle, and Washington, DC. In the midst of articulating key priorities and task forces to involve alumni in Admissions, Field Work Term, the Dean’s Office, and Communications.
  • Phase three. Summer, 2016-Summer, 2017 We will develop reunion plans and programs, continue to launch plans in progress, and identify Bennington alumni across the country and the world who are ready to begin their own regional cooperatives. 

What is new about the Alumni Cooperative, both to the Bennington alumni community and in the field of alumni relations more broadly?

The Alumni Cooperative was actually suggested by an alumna. By its very name, “cooperative,” the framework reflects Bennington’s collaborative culture and egalitarian nature, and denotes accountability by working together.

Since Bennington does not have a culture of returning to campus regularly or other traditions to leverage, the College needed to provide a framework for fostering the connection between Bennington and alumni in meaningful ways.

The Alumni Cooperative structure and engagement opportunities speak to the current profile of alumni everywhere, regardless of the college or university culture: working families, nomadic lifestyle for recent graduates, higher mobility for older alumni, and less free time for everyone.

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What challenges have you faced in forming the Alumni Cooperative and how have you overcome them?

Some of the challenges in developing the Alumni Cooperative include defining and clarifying meaningful metrics for alumni engagement for the College and for the Alumni Cooperative leadership. Since the launch we have used a “micro-metrics” engagement strategy: event by event measurement and the power of feedback and surveys.

We also did not have some communications/volunteer platforms in place at the onset of the Cooperative. We are currently exploring alumni collaboration and information-sharing platforms. We have discovered that not all the pieces have to be put in place before hand, and we want to be responsive and customize tools to the growth and needs of the Cooperative.

What have you learned in your work to start the Cooperative?

We have learned to be comfortable letting go of some staff/institutional control, first and foremost, but have also learned these lessons, still in progress:

  • Be open to the ideas and that emerge out of alumni feedback.
  • We are glad that we have stayed authentic to Bennington’s culture.
  • Allow for flexibility and space for creativity (and messiness) to exist.

The Alumni Cooperative has always been upfront about the importance of giving. We have helped demystify fundraising by sharing budgets, board plans, and decisions.

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