Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Reinventing Alumni Associations: To Remain Relevant, Alumni Associations Must Do More Than Plan Class Reunions and Promote Their Schools, Experts Say

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Reinventing Alumni Associations: To Remain Relevant, Alumni Associations Must Do More Than Plan Class Reunions and Promote Their Schools, Experts Say

Article excerpt


When alumni of Morehouse College, the prestigious school for men in Atlanta, gathered in May for their annual class reunions, they gave the school a badly needed shot in the arm: more than $1 million.

Leading the pack of donors was the Morehouse class of 1949, a group whose members include retired Ebony magazine editor and author Lerone Bennett, lawmaker and former ambassador George Haley, and Murray Schmoke, the father of Kurt Schmoke, dean of the Howard University Law School and former mayor of Baltimore. With many class members deceased, and less than a dozen able to participate in their 60th anniversary reunion, the class of '49 still proudly bested all other classes, presenting the school with $100,000.

"Our school and most others need money to support and maintain the institution" says Haley, a Maryland-based attorney. "It shows [the] pride of the alumni in what has been done for them and helps the school help others," says Haley, a former ambassador to Gambia who also served as the first Black to chair the U.S. Postal Rate Commission. He credits his alumni association with helping keep generations of "Morehouse men" in touch.

The show of loyalty to their school and alumni association demonstrated by Haley and his fellow members of the class of '49 is fast becoming an endangered tradition, a relic of the past, say many involved with alumni associations and fundraising for colleges and universities.

"Alumni associations are going out of vogue," says veteran higher education fundraising consultant Charles Stephens, echoing the sentiments of many of his peers.

Although there are exceptions, most alumni associations face myriad challenges staying relevant in today's world, says Stephens, a director and partner of Cincinnati-based Skystone Ryan, Inc., a fundraising consulting firm.

Membership in alumni associations, never large as a percent of total alumni, is running flat or declining, especially at schools where there is a fee for membership. Affinity schemes, like alumni-branded credit cards that helped alumni associations raise extra money, have run their course. Class reunions are declining in popularity, and alumni association participation at schools of all sizes is taking a back seat to professional and Greek-letter organizations.

Younger alms, meanwhile, are increasingly distracted by other activities and question the value of an alumni association membership when a plethora of social networking tools on the Internet keeps them in touch with close friends from college. Also, alumni associations are getting drowned out by the blizzard of fundraising by schools scrambling to have alumni replace dollars lost from declining corporate and foundation support.

"Most associations are suffering," notes fundraising consultant Jack Miller, president and CEO of the Colorado-based Miller Group. "Because you span an age group from their 20s to their 70s, the older alumni are looking for something different than the young person. The whole Web 2.0 presence means people can stay in touch today in ways that didn't exist five years ago;' says Miller, referring to the disconnect younger alumni have with their schools through alumni associations.


Protecting Heritage

Despite the breadth of challenges they face and questions about their relevance, alumni associations are becoming ever the activists in recent years after decades of being dependable and predictable booster squads for their respective schools.

College presidents who have proposed significant changes in a school's focus have run into walls of opposition from traditionalist alumni associations that fear dramatic changes will eventually translate to lost heritages.

Such was the case at Delaware State University and Mississippi University for Women, to name a couple. In the Delaware confrontation, president Allen Sessoms left amid alumni association opposition to his vision to broaden the school's mission beyond its traditional historically Black college or university (HBCU) focus. …

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