Celebrating Reunion Zero

Posted on 11/01/2019

Reunions can be an effective way to engage alumni in the life and culture of their alma mater. They can help reconnect old friends and classmates, rekindle fond memories, and give disconnected alumni an excuse to pause in their busy lives to come back to campus. Reunions can also be an effective way to raise money. In fact, more than a third of institutions surveyed say that they use reunions to upgrade donors to higher giving levels. 

Despite the effectiveness of reunions, not all institutions use them as part of their alumni relations and development strategies—many schools don’t celebrate reunions at all. One of the reasons they’re not used more often is that they require a lot of resources. Putting together a successful reunion takes a lot of work. 

For those schools that do celebrate reunions, there’s a tendency to focus efforts on older classes (e.g., 25th and 50th reunions). The idea is that older alumni may be more established in their lives and careers and, in turn, make better fundraising prospects. Many institutions think that new (younger) alumni need time and space to “get settled” before they can be expected to get involved with their alma mater. But waiting too long to reconnect with alumni can be a big mistake. 

Virginia Tech recognizes how important it is to keep recent graduates engaged, especially during their first year or two as alumni, which is why they launched a “Reunion Zero” program. Rather than wait 10, 15, or even 20 years to hold a class’s first reunion, the university invites its newest alumni class to return to campus right after graduation.

Virginia Tech implemented Reunion Zero as part of a shift in the overall structure and timing of reunion programs. Historically, the university had held reunions over several different weekends during the fall football season. The 50th reunion celebration took place during homecoming weekend.

The new strategy was to hold all of the various class reunions prior to the 50th during a single weekend in the early summer. A big part of the shift to a larger summer reunion was to create an experience that would attract more people back to campus during a less busy time of year, particularly younger alumni. Cost was one factor. In the past, the expense of hotels and football game tickets alone made it difficult for many young alumni to attend.

Another factor was programming. Although there are modest fees associated with some of the events, complimentary tickets are made available to recent grads who donated to their senior class gift campaign while they were in school. Staff also make efforts to take advantage of the recent grads who are still living locally. To promote attendance by young alumni who live elsewhere, the staff is also creating a discounted package that includes campus lodging, transportation, and special events. 

Reunion Zero created an opportunity to engage volunteers and former student leaders. Staff organize activities for important student groups and recruit group influencers to assist with the planning, communication, and fundraising efforts. Former club leaders, senior class gift committee members, and past phonathon callers are just a few of the types of alumni who would be well suited to join the Reunion Zero committee.

Reunions can play a significant part in defining the relationship that alumni have with their alma mater. It’s especially important to capitalize on this opportunity in the first few years after students leave the confines of campus. When new alumni are engaged and nurtured in consistent and meaningful ways after they graduate, they’ll be more inclined to pay attention when their alma mater calls on them for help, and far more likely to become advocates, volunteers, and donors later in life.

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