Colleges put a new spin on alumni giving

Community-service days are a popular alternative to cocktail parties

When Colorado College was approaching its 125th anniversary two years ago, alumni organizers decided that the best way to get fellow graduates involved in a celebration was to put together a day of community service in 10 cities.

Volunteers planted trees and worked in soup kitchens. In Portland, Ore., they spent the day at a Salvation Army shelter for women and children, painting, sorting donations, and gardening.

"It's a way for alumni to be active members of their communities and honor the college," says Georgi Pantely Laufenberg, a member of the Colorado College class of 1992 who helps organize local events in Portland.

It's more work than colleges usually ask for, but schools have discovered that alumni like it that way. Rather than the usual receptions or guest lectures, an annual day of volunteer work seems to hit a sweet spot.

"A lot of us would like to do more in our communities but don't have the time," says Mary Neagoy, an alumni board member of Wooster College in Ohio. "This is a way to make an impact in one day and see some people we haven't seen in a while."

The high level of interest in these events is driven partly by the fact that community service was an integral part of undergraduate life for many more-recent alumni.

Last year, 81 percent of seniors at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., for example, had participated in some form of community service during their four years there. At Wooster, the largest student group on campus is the one that coordinates volunteer efforts. Nearly 1 in 5 students there live in regular houses on the campus rather than in dorms, which is an honor that brings with it the requirement of committing to an ongoing volunteer activity.

"These days, there's a lot more community service going on while students are at college than there was in my day. But now, everyone has a job when they get out, so the volunteer things that people did before are short-handed," says Margaret Greene, a 1958 Smith College graduate who directs a partnership between Washington, D.C.'s Smith College Club and a local elementary school that serves mostly low-income children.

For alumni who don't have time for a regular commitment, it can be difficult to connect with a one-day service project. So colleges have stepped in to provide that opportunity. "It's probably already on their list to do some community service, and this invitation comes in the mail and makes it easy," Ms. Laufenberg says.

Not just easy, but more inviting, since alumni will be attending a college event at the same time. "It's a wonderful way for them to connect back to the values of the school and their own values," says Gabrielle Lawrence, a Macalester graduate who is now the school's director of alumni relations.

Drawing new folks to alumni events

Colleges are constantly searching for ways to keep alumni involved with the schools, and they've quickly caught on that volunteer work - more than a baseball game outing or an evening with the college's president - taps into something alumni really care about. "Relevance is the biggest buzzword in our business," says Carrie Cadwell, director of Smith College's alumni association.

Macalester held its first annual Alumni Month of Service in April. About 500 alumni in eight cities turned out to help with maintenance and cleanup work at nature preserves and state parks, among other activities. Wooster College is planning its first National Volunteer Day for October. In meetings of the Wooster alumni board, Ms. Neagoy says, "Over the past couple of years, the idea of this kept cropping up as a way to keep alumni connected to the college and to each other."

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., has recently invigorated its alumni volunteer program, partnering with Habitat for Humanity and dispatching the head of its alumni affairs to major cities every six months to work on home-building projects.

Hampshire also invites parents of current students and sometimes makes a weekend of it, with the work on Saturday and a barbecue on Sunday.

"At least a quarter of the people say they've never been to an alumni event before," says Kevin A. Brown, Hampshire's director of alumni affairs. "So other things we offer haven't grabbed them, but community service did." Macalester and other schools have discovered the same phenomenon, saying the different nature of volunteer work appeals to a broad range of busy alumni.

"It's not like a wine and cheese reception, where you go after work in your work clothes. This is a whole different category, where you wear jeans and a T-shirt and dirty sneakers, and are planting flowers," Neagoy says.

Participants are often encouraged to bring their children - and even nonalumni friends - to the events. But even for singles who come on their own, Mr. Brown has heard that they feel more comfortable at a volunteer event where they will be kept busy, than they would going alone to a cocktail party.

Keep the checkbook at hand

What the colleges get out of organizing volunteer work is positive visibility in the communities and local alumni who are in closer contact with one another and with the school.

"Involvement is much more than just money," Ms. Cadwell says. "It's word of mouth, a greater understanding of what's going on at the college. It gives our alums a chance to be tied to Smith again, which is vital to Smith, and it engenders a sense of pride among alums that their college is doing good in the community."

Of course, a major part of any college's relationship with its alumni is getting them to send checks. Keeping alumni involved with the school after graduation encourages this.

"We want to keep the college in the forefront of people's minds, so when the phone call comes for the annual fundraiser, they can't say that this is the only time during the year that they hear from us," Brown of Hampshire says.

"We won't be such strangers, and they'll have fond memories."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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