Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sound Advice

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek, the president of Babson College offered some sound advice: >

In one of his key points, he calls for institutions of higher learning to deepen and redefine their relationships with their alumni during these difficult times. Indeed. Those institutional leaders who use the present financial difficulties as a reason or excuse to reduce their interactions with alumni will, in effect, be saying, "Our relationship with you is based on your ability to give to us. If you can't give, don't expect to hear from us." The consequences of such decisions could be highly detrimental and long-lasting.

Now is the time to listen more and ask less. In fact, those institutions that ask too much or too frequently run a greater risk of losing support, according to recent research conducted by Penelope Burk of Cygnus. Now we should be asking what we can do for those who have done so much for us.

Georgetown, like many other colleges and universities, has a large alumni contingent in New York City. As the credit crises began to unfold and financial institutions began to totter, our alumni association rushed to provide additional career counseling to alumni in that area. The more our alumni responded, the more sessions we provided. But we still had a difficult decision to face. Our largest and most important annual alumni gathering, the John Carroll Weekend, was scheduled to be staged in New York in a matter of months. Alumni chapters, much like cities in pursuit of an Olympic bid, compete to host and stage the event. New York had won the bid for this year but the decision was made two years earlier when the markets were running high and the world seemed so different. But now, New York was reeling.

Since the John Carroll event is very expensive to stage, we had to ask ourselves hard questions. Should we incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense knowing that fewer alumni would have the ability to pay? Should we cut back on the event, do something more bare bones over a shorter period of time? Should we just accept the fact that we would have to eat more of the costs even as our budget was being cut? We turned these and many other questions over and over in our discussions and finally decided that our alumni needed us to be there more than ever before, that we must keep faith with our commitments to them. We decided to do what we thought was right and to accept the financial consequence.

We knew we would have to more creative and cost-conscious than ever before in planning the event. We brainstormed about interesting programs, speakers and events. We decided not to charge one fee for events and activities but to allow our alumni, parents and friends to choose from a range of possibilities, to buy a la carte. We put together a great program, at least it seemed so on paper, then publicized it to our alumni and began waiting nervously for the response. It was immediate and strong. Registrations began pouring in.

We will hold that event this week in New York. Registrations are still coming in but we have set a record for attendance. In fact, we have more than doubled the previous record for attendance. The large number of registrations and sponsorships have covered all our costs. This will be the largest and most successful 0ff-campus gathering of alumni in the University's 220-year history. It could not have come at a better time. As our financial fortunes have fallen, we have become a stronger community.

The reasons for this success are many but the most important was the most basic -- our decision that this was the time to emphasize community building. This was the time to reach out, to communicate and commiserate, to be frank about where we find ourselves today but hopeful about where we want to be tomorrow. In that sense, what is in many ways the worst of times may prove, years and years from now, the best of times in building a stronger foundation for future achievement and service.

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