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Alumni Event Planning: Repeat These Five Mantras

This fall, the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and to mark it, alumni chapters from Sydney, Australia, to Santiago, Chile, will sponsor celebratory boat cruises and barbeques. Events like these, however, are a means rather than an end, according to presenters at the 2015 CASE Summer Institute in Alumni Relations.

The Aug. 2-6 conference brought more than 100 professionals to Burlington, Vermont, to dive into the basics of alumni relations, including managing volunteers, developing campus partnerships and deepening alumni engagement. In their keynote on events management, faculty members Nathalie Walker, director of external affairs at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, and Debra Metcalfe, director of alumni relations at Harvard Medical School, stressed that every alumni event should be a “two-way communication channel” with a defined purpose.

Beyond that, professionals should measure events programs against their team’s larger mission statement, said Metcalfe. At Harvard Medical School, for instance, she said events “connect alumni to each other and back to the school.”

Here are five alumni event planning mantras, applicable to novices planning their first reunion or seasoned event planners launching a new slate of programs for the year:

  • Don’t plan events. Do plan experiences. Professionals should ask: what do we want them to feel? What action do we want them to do? (Also, if you have a boring message to deliver, find a cool place to deliver it.)
  • Put follow-up at the forefront. To transform events into two-way communication channels, make following up with attendees part of the planning. “Solidify your follow-up plan long before the event,” said Metcalfe.
  • Price is not equal to cost. “If you take one thing from this session, let it be this,” said Walker. The cost of the event (catering, renting a space) may be set—but professionals should consider how much their audience might be willing to pay. Maybe it’s more than the cost or maybe it’s much less—base this decision on the culture of the institution.
  • Ask. Do not assume. Determine what the intended audience might want. Don’t simply assume that alumni will pay a certain price for, say, a reunion dinner—ask a few of them.
  • Plan for the best but prepare for the worst. Carve out time for risk management. Walker put it this way: “Find a sensible human being, give [him or her] five minutes and talk through what might go wrong.”

For alumni event inspiration, see CASE’s collection of resources on homecoming and reunions.

This article is from the August 2015 BriefCASE issue of BriefCASE.