Raising Funds to Subsidize Reunions

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The Case For Reducing The Cost of Reunions


One of the greatest strengths of the Alumni effort at Harvard is it's reunions. Few institutions have been able to match Harvard's success in that area, as at each five year interval, 25-40% of graduates return to reconnect with friends and with the University. Reunions are the primary engine of "Friend Raising" which greatly enhances the mother of all Harvard engines, the Harvard College Fund. Over the years, the organization and events of reunions have been closely scrutinized and improved. HAA supports the reunion activity with staff, and for major reunions, a subsidy. Harvard has actually studied the correlation between classes with strong reunion activity and fund raising and, not surprisingly, there is a very strong relationship between the two. Strong classes have successful reunions and successful reunions promote increased giving.

In spite of this success, in any given year more than half of those graduates whose class is celebrating a reunion do not return to Harvard. The reasons are many and varied; personal conflicts, long distance, children's activities, other graduations and just plain lack of interest. But one area with which class organizers have become concerned is the cost of reunions and the lack of affordability for many members of the broad group of alumni. While a scholarship is offered for those who are truly in need, for those classmates on a tight budget, reunions can be seen as an unaffordable luxury. There is a concern that reunions are being attended by those who are well off, thus leaving out a substantial number of Classmates and weakening the overall experience for everyone.

The Class of 1971-35th Reunion Case History

The class of 1971 has had a long and successful history of organizing reunions. In spite of its storied history of attending Harvard during the difficulties of the Vietnam era and being dubbed by Nathan Pusey as "the worst clan ever", the Class of '71 has seen strong attendance at reunions and very strong giving to the Harvard College Fund. While many members of the class were alienated by events during their undergraduate years, a large number of classmates return to reunions to see their friends and rekindle the spirit of the day. From a statistical perspective, reunion attendance figures were numerically in the middle of other Harvard classes and seemed to lag behind the attendance benchmark of the Class of 1970 at each reunion. So while the Class of 1971 has been OK statistically, it was felt that it could be better.

Planning for the 35th

As the class began preparations for their 35th Reunion, the reunion co-chairs contacted a few friends from the reunion committee of the Class of 1970 to see if they experienced any setbacks that might be avoided. According to organizers from 1970, attendance at their 35th had been disappointing. Organizers felt that the format was tired and needed tweaking but more importantly they believed that the cost of the reunion was a significant deterrent to attendance.

Cost Explanation

The organizers of the class of 1971 were determined to change the model of reunion finances by lowering the cost and raising the subsidy. At first they approached the Class Fund Committee with the idea of earmarking a small portion of the Class Gift to subsidize a greater portion of the reunion. It was felt that by offering a free reunion, every possible classmate would return and thus enhance fund raising. It was figured that an entirely "free" reunion (at a cost of $300,000) could be offered to classmates for around 2% of the total class gift which was expected to be $15,000,000. While some members of the 1971 Fund Committee supported some form of increased subsidy, it became clear that the Fund Office was not in support of this change. They viewed it as a source of lost revenue and a risky precedent.

Not to be deterred, one of the class leaders, Paul Goodof, decided to take the issue directly to the class at large. Long ago the class had applied for status as a 501(c)3 charity which allowed for any gifts to the class to be tax deductible. Paul wrote a letter to the entire class seeking donations for the purpose of subsidizing reunion costs and making the 35th more affordable. Within 30 days a total of $43,000 was raised, plus the class received a gift from a classmate whose company donated $8,000 worth of reunion hats and tee shirts.

In addition to this fund raising effort, the reunion committee set out to improve the format while reducing costs. Each function was scrutinized and one major change was made when The Boston Pops Night was deleted. In its place was an exclusive concert with Tom Rush, a very popular folk/rocker from the 60's/70's who was available to play for slightly less than The Pops cost. By doing this, the reunion schedule was shifted to allow a major function on Thursday (Dinner Dance) a quiet function on Friday (Class Talent Showcase) and a major function on Saturday Night (Sit Down Dinner followed by Tom Rush). In addition, our Symposia effort was enhanced and the Talent Showcase was radically overhauled and improved.

The Metrics

In formulating the pricing strategy for the reunion, the committee began with the prior years price of $650.00 per classmate and $600 per guest. In setting the new price we assumed that attendance would be similar to the Class of '70. With cost cuts and the new revenue of $51,000 it was determined that we could reduce prices by 21%. So a full reunion package was offered at $495 per classmate and $450 per guest. Then we sent out the mailing with the expectation that attendance would improve over the prior year. If attendance improved, more contribution to overhead would take place and the subsidy would stretch even further.

The Results

The results of their effort were outstanding. In spite of four days of torrential rain which hurt our "walk in" volume, attendance increased by 104 people and the reunion had the highest attendance of any recent 35th. Revenue increased substantially which allowed Harvard to recover some of it's subsidy ($15,000) which had rarely occurred in the past. And because the increase in attendance drove registration fees and other contribution to overhead, the Class was able to bank the approximately $40,000 it raised and it will use it to subsidize the 40th reunion costs. (See attached financial report for details).

Summary and Recommendations

While Harvard is famous for being "need blind", the reunions have not been. Many classmates cannot afford to attend, especially if airfare, childcare and hotel costs are involved. Classmates greatly appreciated the effort made by the '71 reunion committee and some rising sentiment that "reunions are for the rich" was eliminated.

It is strongly recommended that some form of increased subsidy be adopted for reunion activity. This could be in the form of HAA subsidies being increased or individual classes initiating fund raising activities such as the Class of 1971 effort. In order to do this, each class would need to apply for 501(c)3 status with the IRS. Such status needs to be maintained over the years with some activity and reports, but it is the basis upon which funds can be raised. I will leave the pros and cons of each subsidy mechanism to the HAA and the Classes to decide. The bottom line is that there seemed to exist a return on investment that was proven by the Class of 1971 for some form of increased subsidy.

The Class of 1971 intends to raise funds for each reunion in the future. It is our hope that we are able to run an entirely "free" reunion before our class joins those whose memories are confined to the Red Books in the Widener Stacks!

The reunion committee members are available to discuss this case with any reunion committees that have interest.

Chip O'Hare, 35th Reunion Co-Chair, 1971