University Business

The alumni advantage: seeking to bolster alumni support and involvement, schools are building impressive ‘homes’ for their alumni – Facilities

The alumni advantage: seeking to bolster alumni support and involvement, schools are building impressive ‘homes’ for their alumni – Facilities – Cover Story

Alana Klein

Often tucked away on the outskirts of campus in tatter cramped, nondescript buildings, alumni centers have typically taken a backseat to other campus facility needs. Unlike new state-of-the-art library or a fancy residence hall (facilities that tend to get funded, and therefore built, first), alumni centers have often been relegated to the bottom of an institution’s to-do list. For years they have been perceived as expendable projects that, despite their cachet, are not essential enough to actually constructor renovate. Within the last decade, however, administrators have had a change of heart about alumni centers. Ironically, in an age of deferred maintenance and construction, administrators have come to recognize the value of investing in such facilities–primarily, their ability to encourage alumni involvement and financial support. The alumni center is now the facility du jour across campuses nationwide. Many schools are jumping on the trend, while alumni, excited about their new campus “homes,” are busy writing checks and planning visits to their alma maters.

Thanks to a combination of smart fundraising, alumni support, and architectural innovation, these centers have become quite luxurious. Renovated structures have gone from dilapidated to decadent, while some alumni facilities are brand new. Boasting everything from upscale hotel accommodations (including room service), high-end restaurants, ballrooms, fountains, libraries (stocked with alumni-authored books), and high-tech conference and multimedia rooms, the new multimillion-dollar centers are nothing short of glamorous. And while most have only been around for a short time, many of the centers have already proven their worth. Not only have they have helped to draw alumni back to campus and encourage their participation in institutional events, but they have also given alumni an added incentive to donate. And in these tough economic times, donations are certainly key.

“With dwindling state support for higher education and shrinking endowments, it’s no surprise universities are looking more carefully at other revenue sources,” says Terry Calhoun, director of Communications and Publications at SCUP, the Society for College and University Planning ( “Alumni are known to be a good revenue stream. The fact that they have gone to the school and have become part of the community there makes them want to feed money back into the institution.”

Still, in order to ensure steady alumni giving, a school must understand that alumni centers by and of themselves are not moneymakers. “You’ve got to have a strong alumni program first,” says Robert Davies, associate VP of Alumni Relations for the University at Buffalo (part of the SUNY system). Davies is exploring the possibility of building an alumni center there. “The alumni center is only a tool that can enhance a program. In a lot of ways,” he says, “it’s the icing on the cake.” Attractive centers teamed with strong programs have spurred increased levels of alumni participation, say many, specifically in school reunion and homecoming attendance.

Stanford: Promoting the Center

Stanford University (CA) has achieved notable success with its Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, a 30,000-square-foot, three-story Spanish-style structure completed in 2001. The $37 million center, which is home to 300 staff members, features a 2,000-square-foot cafe serving Mediterranean cuisine; a ballroom, library, business center, and conference rooms; and an outdoor garden with a stone terrace, fountain, and reflecting pool. Just within a year after the center was built, Stanford’s number of reunion attendees jumped from 6,159 (in 2000) to 6,710 (in 2001)–almost a 9 percent increase, says Leslie Winick, director of Classes and Reunions at the Stanford Alumni Association. While reunion attendance was on the rise even before the center existed, Winick says alumni involvement continues to grow because of it. “The center has completely changed the dynamic of the reunion weekend,” she says. “We were always using different spaces on campus for our events and never had one place to go. Now alums feel they have a place to come to that is completely theirs.”

Before the completion of the Arrillaga Center, the alumni association worked out of the Bowman House, a one-story building designed to hold 60 staff members, which at one point was holding close to 90. “The alumni association had tremendously outgrown its previous facility,” says Howard Wolf, president of the Stanford Alumni Association. “We didn’t even have enough space for our staff, let alone to welcome back alumni.”

But Stanford’s impressive reunion turnout is more than just a result of erecting a gorgeous facility. Its effective promotion of the new center also played an important role. During 2000, when the center was still under construction, the alumni office alerted alums about the new center through direct mailings as well as mass e-mails. “We’d throw in a line like ‘Come visit your home away from home;” Winick says. “That had people absolutely curious. We had them thinking, ‘Will this center make me feel more comfortable at Stanford?'” Clearly, it has.

Reunion Growth at Penn State

Penn State University has also seen a surge in alumni involvement since its 43,000-square-foot, $9.5 million Hintz Family Alumni Center was completed in 2001. Located in the heart of Penn State’s University Park campus, the new facility is actually a 30,000-square-foot addition to what was formerly known as the President’s House, a 13,000-square-foot structure built in 1864.

“We’ve had a very positive response to the building so far,” says Patrick Scholl, director of Planning and Business Development for the Penn State Alumni Association. Much like Stanford, Penn State held events all over campus and never in one single location. “We were not very well known before,” he says. “Now we have a physical presence on campus, which is beneficial because it gives us visibility.”

It’s no surprise that with all of this new space, Penn State’s number of reunion attendees is growing steadily. While from 2001 to 2002, it saw a 3 percent increase in attendance, there was also a very significant 22 percent increase from 2002 to 2003. Furthermore, these figures don’t factor in the alumni who attend reunions hosted by the university’s 33 alumni interest groups. “We have always had a high return rate of alumni,” Scholl says. “Going forward, we certainly believe the alumni center will help us to cultivate students and young alumni and become even better.”

North Dakota State: Dollars from Lease-Out

Similarly, at North Dakota State University, a recently constructed $4 million, 30,000-square-foot alumni center has become the focal point for social events and a meeting place for alumni. Completed in 1999, the center has five conference rooms, a two-story atrium that accommodates seated dinners for 150 and stand-up receptions for 250; a library/format living room; a staff lounge; large storage area; full-service kitchen; 5,300 square feet of terrace and patio; a lawn area; and a 16-station telemarketing center. The university also received artwork for the center, including a $20,000 commissioned abstract that was donated by an alum and is now on display in the atrium.

“We don’t know how we ever lived without the facility,” says Sherri Schmidt, associate executive director of Alumni Relations. “The building has gotten so much use, and continues to.” NDSU’s alumni association formerly worked out of three rundown residential homes with no place to entertain. Now NDSU alumni have a true home. “Before, when alumni would come back to campus, they would first stop at the Student Union, where they’d be handed a campus map,” she says. “Students didn’t quite understand alumni needs. With the new center, alumni have a place to go where they will be catered to.”

In addition to holding events for NDSU alumni the center also hosts on- and off-campus groups. From a wedding reception or anniversary party to a business-related social event, the center accommodates all types of gatherings, while in turn generating revenue through rental and catering fees. NDSU charges $500 for a four-hour wedding ceremony and $1,100 for an all-day wedding reception, while meeting room rentals, including conference rooms and lounges, can be rented out for from $10 to $40 an hour. The money that the center generates goes into a maintenance fund for the building, Schmidt explains. “At this point, we are just trying to break even,” she says. “It’s expensive to run a facility like this–you’ve got to cover salaries, heating, lighting, and upkeep. But we’re hoping that it will turn into a profit center in the next couple of years.”

On-campus groups are also taking full advantage of the center. In 2003, the center hosted about 1,000 more events than it did in 1999, including those for on-and off-campus groups. In 2002, the center took in $49,000; in 2003, events brought in $158,000. From 1999 to 2003, 180 more people (mostly alumni) attended the school’s homecoming pre-game pep rally, than had before the center was built. Schmidt says she has no hard evidence that the center itself is responsible for the increased involvement, since, she says, “there have been increased marketing and outreach efforts as well as a new president who has been very aggressive in securing gifts.” But she maintains that the center is clearly an asset to the school, based on its ability to generate revenue and provide more than ample space to host more alumni and non-alumni events.

Stroking for Dollars

In general, when alumni participation is on the rise, so is alumni giving, say college finance and advancement professionals. At Stanford, Jeanne Berent, director of Financial Planning for the Alumni Association, concedes that alumni giving is tied to the state of the economy. The year 2000 was the association’s strongest, seeing about $210 million in alumni donations; 2002 was the worst year, at $119 million, and in 2003, the alumni association collected a total of $141.8 million in gifts, about 19 percent over the previous year. Though alumni association president Wolf can’t directly correlate the rise in donations to the new center, “Anything a university does to embrace its extended family will, over time, make that family more supportive,” he says. “Once alumni feel emotionally connected to the school and intellectually stimulated, the financial support follows.” According to Berent, Stanford doesn’t have a projected dollar goal for 2004. “We look at participation rates instead,” she says. “Ideally, we’d like to get a participation rate of 40 percent. It happened once in 2000 and we’re hoping to see it again soon.” The Arrillaga Alumni Center may be instrumental in achieving this goal.

At Penn State, which already boasts the largest number of dues-paying alums in the country, the number of donors participating is on the increase, despite national economic difficulties. Some of that dedication may be a result of the university’s commitment to honoring its alumni. Of the alumni association’s 146,000 dues-paying members, about 70 percent have made a financial contribution each year since 1999. From 1999 to 2003, the number of alumni who made donations jumped from 71,423 to 76,656, a 7 percent increase. Even during hard economic times–from 2002 to 2002–there was an increase of 905 donors. “We’re already at the top of the ladder,” Scholl says, “but I think we can continue to get better.” The alumni center may play an important role in the university’s effort to stroke its alumni. Unlike North Dakota State’s facility, Penn State’s Hintz Center is used exclusively for alumni events. “We’re not a restaurant or hotel,” Scholl points out. “We’re a place for alumni programs and events.”

Still, not all schools with alumni centers have enjoyed steady growth in donations. North Dakota State, for example, has seen sporadic results. In 1999, the year the alumni center was completed, the alumni association gift total was about $10.5 million, which increased only minimally in 2000. In 2001, giving plummeted to about $9.4 million and then surged to a little more than $11.1 million in 2002, its strongest year ever. Then, in 2003, giving fell to a low of about $8.9 million. Schmidt says the drop in revenue is a result of a big campaign that ended in 1998, and that giving has seemed to have little correlation to the alumni center.

Indeed, while many schools have reported success with centers, the specific impact they’ve had on alumni giving and involvement is still a bit hazy. This, say administrators, is partly because of the roller coaster-like economy and its effect on schools’ donation and reunion figures. Another reason: The centers are still a novelty.

In the coming years, once the alumni center construction dust has settled, it will be interesting to see how the centers–and alumni giving–have fared through the economic highs and lows. In the meantime, alumni facilities do serve an additional and undeniable purpose, which is to beautify a school The entire campus community benefits from these structures, and this kind of campus facelift is particularly useful from a recruitment standpoint. In order to attract the best students, it helps to offer the best amenities–especially amenities that will be there for the students long after they graduate.

“It’s important to keep students in mind, because after all, they do go on to become alumni,” says Calhoun of SCUP. “And one thing that would certainly make a student want to go to a particular school is to see that he or she is appreciated by the administration.”

10 Planning FAQs–and Smart Solutions

Here’s solid guidance from Linda O’Gwynn of Philadelphia-based Purdy O’Gwynn Barnhart Architects ( the firm responsible for the design of Penn State’s Hintz Family Alumni Center.

1. Who will make the decisions? Assemble a building committee composed of members of the alumni association staff and volunteers, as well as university facilities planners, to spearhead the process. The group should be committed to a sustained process that will take a number of years.

2. Who will pay for the project? Via conversations that include university development staff, the building committee should reach a decision early on about who is going to pay for, operate, and maintain the facility. Site selection may also occur early on via agreement between the alumni association and the university, or that decision may be made later with the advice of an architect.

3. What have other schools done? The committee should visit a number of recently constructed alumni centers at similar universities with a well-prepared list of questions pertaining to such issues as the planning process, architect selection, fundraising, and post-occupancy evaluation.

4. What is our mission? The committee should prepare a preliminary program that spells out the overarching mission and goals for the facility, along with a list of functions to be accommodated. The program is crucial because it is a basis for communicating with the architect. It should convey the passions of the alumni association and explain what people value about their alma mater and what will bring them back to campus.

5. How do we find the right architect? The architect selection process should comprise several steps and should include the entire building committee of the alumni association as well as university facilities representatives. These individuals should build an initial list of about 10 architects (or firms), all of which should be required to submit an Essence of the Project Statement, in addition to their qualifications. A short list of perhaps three should be invited for interviews as a basis for selection, with fee negotiation to follow.

6. How do we define what we want? With the architect on board, a thorough programming process should begin, which includes interviews with leaders of various staff and volunteer committees, as well as regularly scheduled meetings with the building committee. At these meetings, the architect will take the committee’s first ideas on functional needs and flesh them out with alternative suggestions for a wide array of concerns including flexibility of space, spatial techniques for promoting sociability, and integration of technology. This is a very creative part of the process and key in determining the particular character of the university’s alumni center. Practical information on size and quantity of space, as well as required amenities, should be included in the final written program.

7. How do we determine a budget? Another crucial part of programming is to determine the quality level of the building, in order to arrive at a budget figure. If the center is to be an effective vehicle for involving alumni in the life of the university and increasing their support, it is likely to be more expensive per square foot than many other university buildings.

8. How do we achieve consensus? As designs for the building progress through more and more detailed phases, it is important for the building committee and the architect to present updates to broad groups of constituencies to assure buy-in. Dissent must be accommodated and conflicts resolved. Because building an alumni center is about creating a community, a generous and open spirit throughout the design process is key to creating enthusiasm and support.

9. How do we optimize fundraising efforts? To keep everyone involved and excited, there should be a steady stream of public relations activities throughout the design process. Techniques can include special presentations of design details (such as furniture and signage) to small alumni groups, or updates of building plans on the alumni association website. The architect should be prepared to incorporate amenities throughout the design process, as donor interest increases.

10. How do we assure quality through the construction process? Along with university facilities personnel, the architect should be very involved in the process of evaluating competitive bids between pre-qualified contractors. Throughout the construction process–and to make sure that the level of quality promised to alumni is delivered on opening day-the architect and an alumni association representative should be present at biweekly job meetings.

Going for the Gold

Virginia Tech’s alumni relations folks pin high hopes on an impressive new alumni center/hotel complex.

Virginia Tech alums are in for a treat next June, when a new $16.2 million, 190,000-square-foot facility–housing an alumni center, conference center, and hotel–opens its doors. Most unique is the facility’s hotel, which will boast 150 rooms with an expected annual occupancy rate of 60 percent. The previous conference center, which was built in the 1960s, also functioned as a hotel but on a much smaller scale, says Tom Tillar, VP of Alumni Relations at Virginia Tech.

“We’re basically updating and expanding the hotel,” he says. “Since the university is the hub of the community, it has always been important to provide facilities for alumni and others who visit.” In addition to the hotel, alumni will also have access to a fully functional, three-level alumni center with a grand hall; a two-story lobby and reception area; an assembly hall with equipment for presentations and long-distance conferences; a museum showcasing Virginia Tech’s history; an open gallery overlooking the grand hall; and a library, boardroom, and three smaller meeting rooms. The third level is reserved for the alumni association.

The two-level conference center, directly connected to the alumni center’s second level, features a banquet room with 800-person capacity and four large and small conference rooms, equipped with state-of-the-art teleconferencing and presentation technology.

Once the building is completed, the alumni association will begin to create more events, such as a gourmet cooking and wine-tasting weekend and a master gardeners weekend. Tillar says he expects alumni involvement to increase by 40 to 50 percent once the facility is built. “As it is, we draw quite a few alumni back, but most of those are centered around football weekends,” he says. “What we can do now is round out the year by having more opportunities to attract them.”–AK

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