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Alumni relations pros share four secrets for creating family-friendly events

By Eleanor Lee Yates


Need events for young families? The University of Pennsylvania lets kids spend the night in its archaeology museum. (Photo: Dari Sutton)

Two years ago, Peter LaBreck received a thank you note that still resonates. An alumna wrote to LaBreck, associate director for alumni affairs at Stonehill College, to say she'd enjoyed a recent on-campus Christmas concert. It was the first event she'd attended at the Massachusetts institution in years, and she was thrilled to share her alma mater with her kids. How thrilled? The note included her first annual gift to the college.
Stonehill College's annual Christmas Concert

The Christmas concert is one way that Stonehill has upped its outreach to "tweener" alumni: graduates who are no longer eligible for young alumni programming but aren't ready to be courted as significant donors. These members of generations X and Y—roughly defined as those born in the mid-1960s and beyond—are entering the peaks of their careers but often contending with limited time and disposable income (and raising young children).

Over the next 30 years, however, this group will be the benefactors of a huge wealth shift. More than $30 trillion in financial and nonfinancial assets will transfer from baby boomers to Gen Xers and millennials in the United States alone, according to a 2012 report by Accenture, a wealth- and asset-management firm. That's why it's essential for engagement officers to invest in family-friendly programming and stay connected with young alumni. But it's not as simple as hosting a children's carnival at your next reunion. Here are some key strategies for success.

1. Ask for feedback early and often.

Think you have a great idea for family programming? Make sure your alumni agree, says Jill Anderson, assistant vice president for alumni and parent relations at New Jersey's Drew University. "A great idea you develop in-house may fall totally flat with alumni, while a program you're lukewarm about may be a hit," she says.

BALLOONING SUCCESS: New Jersey’s Drew University moved the date of its reunion to accomodate family schedules. (Photo courtesy of Drew University)Seven years ago, Drew's team moved its annual reunion from spring to fall. The weekend centered on a Drew men's soccer game, similar to how other institutions focus homecoming around football. The staff thought the change would create more opportunities for family programming. While attendance at the fall reunion grew, alumni consistently expressed their desire to move the reunion back to spring.

Seeking statistical evidence to support the anecdotal feedback, the alumni and parent relations office sent a survey to Drew's nearly 16,000 alumni about the reunion and its timing. Nearly 60 percent of alumni wanted the event to return to the spring. Among alumni ages 30 to 50, 69 percent said they prefer the spring because it's the best time for their families' schedules.

"Alumni really valued having campus to themselves and their families in the spring," Anderson says. Beginning this year, Drew's reunion will return to its traditional springtime slot.

Drew also administers post-event surveys to make sure that graduates like the university's offerings. Among the topics addressed: how alumni heard about the event; their enjoyment of the programming and the venue; the fairness of the admissions price; and what action they'd take as a result of the event, from returning next year to making a gift.

"Because we have limited resources, it's critical that we ask the right questions to ensure we're providing the right programs," Anderson says. "The time for trying an event and simply hoping for success is over, especially when it comes to engaging our alumni who have families."

2. Focus on attendees' costs (in money and time).

Jennifer Heathcote understands the challenge of attracting alumni with young families and busy jobs: She's part of that demographic. A graduate of Arkansas' John Brown University, Heathcote typically asks two questions when committing to an event: Can she bring her kids? And if not, is the event inexpensive and compelling enough to warrant hiring a sitter?

She considers these same issues when planning programs as JBU's coordinator of alumni and parent relations. Campus activities, such as concerts, speeches, and sporting events, usually have individual and family price options. General prices are $5 for one person and $15 for a family of three or more. The alumni office also arranges free or low-priced, student-provided child care at or near most event sites.

For alumni unable to travel to campus, the university works with volunteers who host dinners at their homes or restaurants to unite graduates—especially those with time and budget constraints. As often as possible, Heathcote coordinates dinners that feature a visit by a campus representative, including the president.

The dinners require little or no investment from alumni or the institution but can pay great dividends: One 2007 graduate who hosted a dinner with JBU's president in 2010 was inspired to volunteer as a panelist during the university's Leadership Week. Two years ago, he joined the institution's Founder's Circle for annual giving by making a gift of $500 or more.

3. Take advantage of unique resources.

Family programming doesn't have to be expensive. Partnering with campus colleagues and using your institution's unique assets can produce great engagement opportunities that require little investment of time and staff resources.
The University of Pennsylvania lets kids spend the night in its archaeology museum.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's popular 40 Winks with the Sphinx program gives visitors access to special tours and activities, including the chance to sleep under the nose of the world's third-largest granite sphinx. The Friday-night sessions sell out quickly, but since 2011, the institution's alumni office has partnered with the museum to reserve one evening's slots for alumni at $5 off the normal admission price ($45 per adult, as opposed to $50 for the general public). And because alumni family events are promoted exclusively through email or on the office's Frankly Penn blog, no marketing costs detract from the alumni office's bottom line, says Kristina Clark, director of operations and special programs for Penn's alumni office.

Clark also helped initiate Family Day at Mask and Wig, Penn's popular all-male theater troupe, three years ago. After a catered lunch, the more than 100 alumni and children who attend enjoy a special performance of the Mask and Wig's annual spring production (and yes, the troupe revises the script so it's PG). Following the performance, alumni and their children can meet the actors and try on costumes. A moderate charge—$25 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under—covers the cost of the event.
Penn’s Mask and Wig theater group does special performances for kids (and invites them on stage). (Photo courtesy of The Mask and Wig Club)

At a recent Penn Family Day, Mask and Wig brought alumni children on stage and taught them the lyrics to "The Red and Blue"—a song beloved by Penn graduates for generations. The impromptu recital gave chills to several graduates in the audience, says Clark.

"Alumni functions are one thing, but when you get the little kids up there singing ‘The Red and Blue'—wow!" wrote a 1988 alumnus who attended the event. "Zing! You've got the alumni by the heart."

4. Let the grown-ups have some fun.

Since 2001, Florida's Berkeley Preparatory School has invited recent alumni to reconnect with friends at a holiday party. The event is hotly anticipated by graduates, especially those eligible to attend for the first time. More than 200 alumni—typically between the ages of 21 and 30—and their guests take part each year, says Betsy Astolfi, director of alumni relations.

"It's a lively crush of people. Many of them are seeing each other for the first time since they graduated," Astolfi says.

While the event became an instant tradition among Berkeley graduates, a problem soon emerged: Young alumni didn't want to age off the guest list. So in 2011, Astolfi tapped a longtime chair of the holiday party to plan a concurrent gathering for graduates 10 years out and older. The new Forever Blue party is held in the same restaurant as the young alumni version, just on a different floor.

Forever Blue has more seating than its counterpart, making the setup more conducive to lengthy conversations among graduates who haven't seen each other in years. Several Berkeley administrators, including the headmaster and the director of institutional advancement, mingle with graduates. Although attendance is usually smaller (Forever Blue averages about 75 guests) and the atmosphere is quieter, Astolfi says the event is no less warm and festive.

"Older young alumni who will soon ‘age out' of their party will come to check out Forever Blue," she says. "It's become a fun rite of passage when a class moves from the young alumni party to Forever Blue. After all, older alumni want to have fun too!"

About the Author Eleanor Lee Yates

Eleanor Lee Yates is a freelance writer who formerly served as a public information officer and a publications editor for Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina.




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