The University is starting a new chapter of alumni engagement with an online book club.
The Office of Development and Alumni Relations will start an online book club later this month where alumni can discuss books about professional advancement. Experts said online book clubs can help engage alumni for a low cost and reach former students who don’t live close to campus.
But these kinds of programs often struggle to keep participants engaged because face-to-face relationships are often needed to build alumni connections, they said.
Matt Manfra, the interim vice president for development and alumni relations, said the club will hold its first virtual meeting on Jan. 29, and the office has been advertising it since the beginning of January.
“We are excited to start a virtual book club, hosted by PBC Guru, which provides all GW alumni with an avenue to enhance their professional skill set and connect with fellow Colonials around the world through an online, private forum,” he said in an email.
Manfra said the book club may feature faculty and alumni authors in future discussions. He declined to say how much the program cost the University or how many alumni have already signed up.
Alumni sign up for the book club online and communicate entirely through a chat system. The group will discuss a new book every two months and the club is free except for the cost of purchasing the books, according to the website.
Alumni can post and share content related to the book they are reading at any time.
Zach Rubin, the co-founder of Professional Book Club Guru, the third-party that operates the book club, said he has been talking with the alumni relations office since the fall in hopes of starting the club. He said several hundred people have already signed up to join.
Rubin said the company works with more than 50 universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and Boston College, to set up online clubs, a useful outlet for former students to connect because it’s difficult to get alumni to meet in the same physical space.
“There is a huge advantage when you can get people face-to-face in a room of course, but the challenge there is its harder to get people face-to-face in a room at the same time,” he said.
A book club is a fitting activity for alumni because books are a key part of the University’s mission to teach students and advance knowledge and often people want to read more, he said.
“There’s kind of that proverbial stack of books on peoples’ night stands,” Rubin said. “So when they see an opportunity to join a book club it gives them a chance to opt into something, holds them accountable to a schedule, and actually read more than they would have otherwise.”
Strengthening ties between the University and alumni has been a major aim of University leadership this academic year. The Board of Trustees created an alumni task force last summer to improve alumni opportunities and determine the next steps for fundraising after the $1 billion campaign concluded in May.
A key tenet of that effort, officials said, was showing former students that their engagement with the University didn’t only have to be about donating money.
Alumni engagement officials at other universities said hosting online book clubs can increase alumni participation at other events.
But Marguerite Jones, the senior director of alumni benefits and services at Johns Hopkins University, said her university decided to end its book club a year ago after it attracted minimal interest.
“We weren’t seeing enough engagement in response,” she said. “At the time we felt like we couldn’t measure our success enough.”
Brandee Norris, the executive director of annual giving and alumni engagement at Marietta College in Ohio, said the virtual alumni book club at her university, run through PBC Guru, has more than 300 members, but only about 30 regularly comment.
Still, she said book clubs can show alumni that universities care about their alumni experience beyond making a donation.
“We definitely do want their financial support, and that’s very important, but we want them to be engaged with their college,” she said.