Record number of alumni return to campus

by Sarah Ferris And Kierran Petersen

Correction appended

A record-breaking 2,800 alumni returned to Foggy Bottom this weekend – a turnout that far surpasses last year's as the University looks to build a strong alumni core to bolster philanthropy.

The seventh annual program included 70 events across Foggy Bottom, allowing the University to connect former students with the campus and show off its growth. This year’s total attendance of 3,600 alumni, students and staff, represents a 37 percent increase from the year before and an 800 percent increase from the first Alumni Weekend in 2005, when 400 people showed up.

Media Credit: Shannon Brown | Hatchet Staff Photographer
University President Steven Knapp plays the bongos with Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey Friday. The six-time Grammy award-winning group jammed under technicolor lights for an hour and a half at the Smith Center.

Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger said his office is also trying to better reach out to GW's 250,000 alumni by sending more mail and creating higher quality newsletters and magazines. The office has also brought alumni back to campus to mentor students and learn more about the University before the launch of its 10-year strategic plan.

“People give because we have cranes up, because the selectivity of our students are better, because our faculty are better and these buildings are coming up out of the ground,” Morsberger said.

Out of the $120 million GW raised in fiscal year 2012, about $31 million in gifts came from alumni. That 9.3 percent alumni giving rate has remained steady in recent years.

The expansion of Alumni Weekend also represents an overall growth in alumni programming, Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations and Development Adrienne Rulnick said. Her office coordinated 400 events internationally last year, up from 200 when she started at GW five years ago.

Suzanne Grega, a 2002 graduate who chartered the Philadelphia chapter of the Alumni Association, came to Alumni Weekend for the first time this year. She said she has seen the level of communication with alumni rise in recent years.

"When I first graduated, I didn't get much of anything from GW asking me to donate," she said. “They want us to know what they have going on with the building and how they’re trying to make this a learning institution."

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Graphics Assistant

The development office is working on an online system to track alumni engagement and tailor donation recommendations. The system would note each individual's interests based on records of their event attendance, donation history and student organization affiliations.

“We can start to look at patterns. People who came twice, people who came three times, people in a leadership role – then look at their giving. We’re getting close to that, and that’s really our goal,” Rulnick said.

Morsberger said his office is always looking for ways to create “a more robust Alumni Weekend” to reconnect former Colonials with GW.

This year's Earth, Wind & Fire concert cost the University $190,000, according to a contract obtained by The Hatchet. But the act attracted a crowd of 2,300, compared to the 600 people who attended last year’s Chuck Brown show and the more than 1,000 who came to see the Barenaked Ladies two years ago.

Taste of GW, a food festival featuring alumni and parents, tripled in size this year to include 18 vendors. Alumni sampled food from restaurants owned by other alumni or parents at makeshift mobile eateries that lined University Yard.

As fundraising and programming efforts intensify, the 200-person Division of Development and Alumni Relations office plans to increase staffing by about 10 percent over the next few years.

The University is also in the quiet phase of a multi-year comprehensive capital campaign, gauging interest from potential donors to determine a fundraising goal and timeline. It is expected to launch in 2014.

Since Morsberger arrived at GW two years ago, the development office has spread its reach across departments, schools and programs.

Alumni relationships are a key part of the University’s new career services strategy, announced last spring. The GW Career Center will pair up alumni with students for mentorships and specifically designate staff to network with alumni who could hire graduates.

The career staff is also working with the Office of Alumni Relations to include more opportunities for alumni to job hunt and train.

“We’re leveraging our activities and engagement to get people connected you have to start that way. You don’t start with giving,” Rulnick said.

For Gideon Davis, who has stayed in touch with GW by attending events every year since he graduated from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 1996, engagement with the University has helped him shore up his career training.

“I looked at the economy. Jobs are shaky, so I thought it was better to go to the career management session they offered,” Davis said.

This fall, Rulnick coordinated GW’s first virtual career networking hour – a chatroom divided by industries like media and communications, art and business and economics that created six-minute “speed dating” for participants.

Rulnick worked with local universities this summer to create a D.C. alumni group in Asia. She will be traveling to Hong Kong this fall to help kick off the organization, which she said she hopes will connect students based on their D.C. experiences.

The development and alumni office has also encouraged professors and deans to reach out to alumni when they travel internationally.

Rulnick said she tells them, " 'I see you’re going to be in South Africa, we have 10 alumni in the city you’re going to be at, but if you have a free night, we’d love to have them come to dinner with you and ask them for their business cards.' "

"So we can maximize our efforts without always putting staff on a plane,” Rulnick said.

Chloe Sorvino and Matthew Kwiecinski contributed to this report.

This article was updated Oct. 1, 2012 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that alumni gifts reached $1.1 million in fiscal year 2012. That number is actually $31 million.

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