Schools spin alumni Webs

By Todd Cohen

On the heels of a $208.9 million campaign, the biggest ever for an independent school in the United States, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., is turning to the Web to boost ties with alumni and help connect them with one another.

“The future of institutional advancement depends on distributing alumni affairs to the grassroots, leveraging all the tools at our disposal,” says Eric Steinert, associate director for annual giving and online services.

Andover, which counts President Bush and former President Bush among its alumni, joins a small but growing number of prep schools, and hundreds of colleges and universities, that are developing online communities for graduates.

Many schools use online-community tools marketed by a handful of firms — including the Internet services division of Harris Publishing Co. in Purchase, N.Y., Internet Association Corp. in Akron, Ohio, and Dallas-based Publishing Concepts – while others build their own systems.

“When budgets are being cut nationwide, it just makes sense to begin to outsource some of the costs associated with online communities and online directories,” says Don Philabaum, president of IAC.

At Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., more than 8,500 of the school’s 30,000 living alumnae have registered at the three-year-old online community the school leases from Harris – including 1,500 who signed up in the three days after the Sept. 11 attacks last year.

“People just want to find out where other people are,” says Michelle Gillett, Wellesley’s director of alumni technology systems. “That’s the biggest driving element.”

Wellesley, which is in the midst of a $400 million campaign, offers an online directory that lets alumnae update biographical and contact information, while a new feature will let them post news in a “class notes” section.

And while the school won’t disclose details for the modest results of email fundraising appeals it has made, an appeal in June generated more than 400 donations, up from 122 donations through an appeal a year earlier, Gillett says.

Her goal, she says, is to build the online community into a “quasi-portal” that tailors content to the interests of individual alumnae and offers online classes and learning.

Clark University in Worcester, Mass., after raising $107 million in a campaign that ended in December, launched its online community in January.

By August, 10 percent of the school’s 25,000 alumni were registered at the site, well ahead of projections it would take two to three years to reach that level of participation, says Bill Bennett, director of alumni affairs and major gifts officer.

In addition to posting news and information about themselves, alumni use message boards on topics ranging from reunions and athletes to career issues and trading Clark memorabilia.

“The more we engage our alums, the more they’re going to learn about the university and take pride in the university and give, both financially and physically,” says Bennett.

The alumni association at the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology, just kicking off a campaign to raise $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, is building its own online community, starting with a directory and an email newsletter to keep alumni informed and drive them to Caltech sites.

In the works are professional-networking services and a Webcasting feature, says Andy Shaindlin, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association.

In addition to screening videos of on-campus speakers, visitors using the Webcasting feature will be able to view materials – such as slides, videos and PowerPoint presentations – synchronized to their use in the speakers’ talks. Webcasts also will offer links to Web pages or PDF files related to the talks.

And the association, with 18,000 alumni for which it has addresses, plans a class-notes feature geared to capture up-to-date biographical and contact information about alumni posting news.

“We’re trying to do with what alumni need,” says Shaindlin, who launched online courses for alumni at Brown University and online book discussion groups at the University of Michigan as director of alumni education, respectively, at the two schools.

“We are connecting and reconnecting alumni with each other and with the school by providing them with things that serve their needs, and by putting the school’s name in front of them on a regular basis,” he says. “We’re reminding them in a useful way that Caltech is out there and that the institute is current and up to speed and relevant.”

With 21,600 alumni for which it has active records, Andover last Christmas launched a directory alumni can use to update biographical and contact information.

So far, 5,000 alumni have registered at the site, which also features a career center they can use to post and search for resumes and job openings, along with yellow pages they can use to list services and products.

And the school, which has used broadcast email to make fundraising appeals targeted to particular alumni classes, also has launched a class-notes feature that lets alumni post news and will alert members at the site and through email about recently posted items.

“Development can occur because of the accumulated good will of your constituencies, which can be everyone who was ever on the yearbook or in a play or on the hockey team,” Steinert says. “But those peers need to find each other and they need to be given the tools to initiate contact on their terms and by their own design.”

Compared to centralized alumni affairs in the 1950s and 60s, he says, institutions succeeding in the 21st Century “will be the ones that have done the best job of designing the tools and nurturing alumni locally to be more empowered and enthused about the specific issues that interest them most as alumni.”

That also is the approach at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., which offers an online directory for the 19,000 alumni for whom it has records — 5,000 of whom have registered in the two years since the school launched its online community.

Exeter, in the early stages of planning a campaign expected to be its biggest ever, also has used broadcast email to send pledge reminders to alumni donors, and to conduct a travel survey in an effort to double to four the number of alumni trips the school sponsors each year.

Alumni, who soon can visit Web pages for each alumni class and for regional alumni chapters, also can take three to four online classes a year, including one last spring with a faculty member who assigned readings from Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett before the session.

“One of the things alumni tell us whenever we survey them is that what they miss most in their lives today is the quality of intellectual interaction they had when they were at Exeter,” says Harold Brown, director of alumni affairs.

“What we’re doing is connecting alums with alums,” he says. “But Exeter also is positioned in their minds as a place where excellence still thrives and they can still come and get that experience.

“By extension, when we ask them to support Exeter, whether by volunteering or financially, it’s an easy step for them,” he says. “They don’t have to remember back to when they were students. They can turn to more recent experiences.”

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