After working at the Sharpe company for six years, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater as director of alumni. Knowing I would benefit from hands-on experience in a successful advancement department, I thought this was the perfect move for me. I recently returned to Sharpe after some eight years in management of alumni affairs and advancement communications.
The alumni relations program I joined has long recognized that the more engaged alumni are in the life of an institution, the more generous they are likely to be. Therefore, endeavors to involve alumni in campus life through volunteer opportunities and special events were an integral part of my role.
Though in the past many alumni programs have focused to a large extent on older, established alumni, in recent years alumni affairs professionals have begun placing more emphasis on involving younger alums. This has proven to be a wise strategy, as the increased mobility of recent graduates makes it a challenge to involve them in oncampus events. I followed suit and spent a large percentage of time building an online alumni presence and creating community service and career counseling opportunities that would appeal to this younger group.
Should old acquaintance be forgot
However, my prior experience at Sharpe taught me not to forget the older alumni who had long been faithful volunteers and donors, particularly those who might for various reasons be making smaller annual gifts than they had in past years. In most cases their love of the College had not diminished—just their level of disposable income. It was important to continue to look for new ways to reach out to our older graduates. Fortunately, the other members of the development staff and I saw this as a challenge we could meet together.
Reunion campaigns were nothing new at the College, but the way we began to approach them certainly was. As the year 2000 was drawing near, it was a natural time to highlight the class of 1950, which was about to enjoy its fiftieth reunion. Previously, fiftieth reunion campaigns had been managed solely by the annual fund staff, as are all other class campaigns. That year, however, we combined the efforts of the alumni staff with those of the directors of the annual fund, planned giving, and major giving.
This new collaboration proved immensely successful. The Class of 1950, with a combination of outright gifts of cash and securities and deferred gifts of bequests, life insurance, and trusts, presented the College with a check for $2.2 million at Homecoming—the largest class gift ever. We supported this effort by continuing to offer more traditional alumni programs, such as travel, estate planning seminars, and fiftyfifth and sixtieth reunion celebrations, which allowed older alumni to stay connected with the College and with each other.
Reconnecting with the past
Perhaps the most meaningful project with which I was involved during my time in management of alumni affairs was the College oral history program. In 1998, the College celebrated its sesquicentennial. As we planned for this
historic event, I realized we were quickly losing one of our most precious resources for stories and information about earlier days at the College—our alumni from the late 1920s and 1930s. In an attempt to capture their memories, we recruited the help of a professor in the history department, who agreed to ask his students to help in recording the oral histories of alumni from this period.
Soon, the professor became so intrigued that he transformed the project into a course on oral history. Alumni in the local area were invited to visit the class and relive their college days by sharing their memories. Students also arranged to interview out-of-town alumni returning for Homecoming.
These conversations between older alumni and current students were wonderful to witness. After all, who doesn’t want to reminisce about college? Current students enjoyed making comparisons with their own experiences, and the experience undoubtedly increased the students’ bond with the College.
This project is now being developed into a book on the history of the College, and the history professor has turned out to be a wonderful fundraiser. In fact, two of his own oral history visits resulted in very nice gifts for the College. All staff involved in this project would be very surprised if these efforts did not ultimately lead to increased levels of alumni commitment in terms of bequests and other planned gifts.
Achieving style and substance
After five years in the alumni office I moved within the advancement department to the communications office, first as director of publications and finally as acting director of communications. Our office was responsible for all externally focused publications of the College—fund-raising appeals, the alumni magazine, and admissions materials—as well as all public relations and a variety of special events.
Some development executives may now be facing pressure from their marketing or communications office to adhere to a family look or “branding” standards in their publications—quite a challenge when your audience may range from 16 to 99 years of age as it does at a college. It can seem impossible for publications to have the same colors and font sizes and types and yet still appeal to diverse elements of your constituency—a challenge most communications offices and graphic designers acknowledge.
If your school or other organization has adopted specific design guidelines and you are responsible for communicating with older persons, for example, try to work within guidelines while also remembering your audience. In most cases, communications offices are happy to help you accomplish your goals as long as you work with them and not around them.
Though our office served as the “logo police,” we stayed away from most other design guidelines. We decided it was more important for College publications to stand out because of their high quality and market-appropriate design rather than strictly adhere to rigid design guidelines regardless of the target audience.
I stayed in touch with the staff at Sharpe all the years I was at the College. I was extremely fortunate to have access to this resource during that time and to approach my role in a manner that was designed to enhance giving from alumni of all age and wealth ranges.
Now, eight years after I left RFSCo, I am happy to rejoin the Sharpe team. The experience I gained working in the field has given me an insight into the challenges and rewards of the work of those we serve.