Tiger Alumni Giving – An Outsider’s View

Hep! Hep!

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

Sis! Sis! Sis!

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Bah!

’92! ’92! ’92!

This was the chant yawped at the recent legendary reunions of the College of New Jersey (aka Princeton). I had the privilege to witness this ritual experience recently and despite being on vacation, I often can’t help but keep the sociological analysis from intruding. Reunions are a sociological idea after all, it assumes that we identify with a group of people who shared the same experience – in the case of universities, it’s a college experience (whether or not it was about the educational content is a different matter). In sociological terms, alumni giving is a demonstration of institutional commitment. So the idea then is that a positive experience as an undergraduate might motivate some or many to give back financially once they have graduated. The problem of course is that time and distance tend to weaken the sense of connectedness to the school. Thus reunions can be an effective way of reigniting the flame of good times long past. And many will also see how older and newer generations of alumni also share in the chain of memory of their alma mater.

So I should mention that Princeton boasts the highest alumni giving rates of any institution of higher education,(notice that it’s nearest competitor, Dartmouth College is 11% lower in alumni giving) so of course many folks in the fund-raising scene are paying (pun intended) attention to this school to learn what works.

As an honorary tiger (and dare I say “I was a professor at Princeton” since I am a professor and I was at Princeton (for two days [cough])), I believe the reunion experience at Princeton is quite exceptional, and may be the key to its high alumni giving. So here are my observation and a few tips for universities seeking to emulate the reunion experience in order to increase alumni giving.

-Get graduating seniors to participate in the festivities. According to insiders, Princeton seniors basically spend the last two weeks before graduation hanging around campus and participating in the reunion weekend. That’s right, they have their first reunion before they leave campus. This leaves seniors with potentially one of the most positive experiences they have before leaving the school and entering into the real world.

-Don’t change a thing: My wife and I shared a student dorm room with the same California-King twin mattress bunk-bed since 1982. There’s nothing more effective in reliving the experience of being an undergraduate once more than trying to climb up to the top bunk with feet that are now 20 years older. This dorm retained its basement (yes basement) location for the communal bathroom. While I never attended this school, ah the how the smell of mold, sweaty clothes can bring back those memories of yesteryear. That and the lovely sound of a poor comrade kneeling before the porcelain throne two stalls down. And that’s precisely the point. In these uncomfortable conditions, one gains a sense of solidarity in the relative suffering that all Tigers faced.

Noted Alum Gordon Wu donation

-Change lots of things: In meeting up with my wife’s friends, I learned that numerous new buildings went up, a few buildings were completely razed and rebuilt, and some were remodeled on the inside while still retaining the Gothic exterior that is the main architectural theme at this school. To do so requires money, and nothing says “your alumni dollars go to improve this school” than seeing new buildings named after one rather generous donor.

That's science!

-Show off your multi-million dollar science stuff. We visited the geological sciences building and had an amazing opportunity to stand in several rooms where science took place. These devices help us understand the geologic record so that we can determine when major events like mass extinctions took place millions of years ago. Science usually conveys progress, and progress is costly, so why not let alumni know that their school is making progress, er, science?

-Sensory overload: Have food and drink everywhere but only at select hours. While alumni were asked to visit the food tents once per meal, the choices were delectable to be sure and one visit would be more than sufficient. Besides, the local haunts like Hoagie Haven and the 24-hour convenient store chain “Wawa” retained their status as the 1am pit stops for sandwich and beer runs. It has been a long time since I had seen a true line outside of a deli at 1am, but such is the case during alumni weekend.

-Invite Bon Jovi and Joan Jett. It doesn’t hurt to have connections with celebrities from your home state, even if they didn’t attend your alma mater. The highest reunion group is usually the 25th anniversary and not surprisingly “Living on a Prayer” could be heard at their reunion tent. What’s valuable about music of course is that the right kind draws listeners’ memories of their youthful spirit. Nothing makes you want to give money away than feeling young again. Notably jazz and other generation-appropriate music could be heard across the campus in tents for the class of ’52 and ’65 and so forth.

-Have kick-ass acapella singing groups in kick-ass acoustic spaces near the midnight hour because it’s edgy and you just had a hoagie and beer. Princeton has over 10 student-led acapella groups by now and these reunions help bring back alumni to enjoy singing once more with new members.

-Last but not least, have an amazing parade that’s been a tradition for over a century where each graduating class invents a theme that is usually emblazoned on a costume. We watched members of the graduating class of 1925, and shouted the motto above as they waved past in their golf carts. The class of ’92 was the Tiger Chef, and even honorary tigers got tchotchke. 

I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have incredibly bright graduates (The 200+ survey respondents of the class of ’92 revealed that 18% of them had a PhD) and very rich graduates (15% reported household income equaling or exceeding over 1 million a year), but I’m pretty sure it’s the reunion weekend that sends people for their checkbook. That and Bon Jovi.

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  • andrea

    Interesting that the 25th year group has the greatest participation. I suspect that’s for a number of reasons. It’s also interesting because several of my friends went back for our 25th reunion and I don’t think they’ve gone to any others. It’s amazing to realize that by that point, you’ve been away from “college” for more years that had passed before you finished.

    Of course, Jerry, what you focused on in your piece was all the rituals. Princeton has created an atmposphere of rituals upon which everything is based. Did they also tell you that the format of their alumni parade has not changed over the years? Its perhaps the comfort of the ritual that encourages participation.

    • Jerry Park

      Great points Andrea and thank you for reminding me of that very important word “ritual” – perhaps it is the case that there is something quite powerful about performing this ritual which is difficult to emulate at other schools?

  • John

    I wonder how minority alums feel about the reunion experience. I remember reading how Michelle Obama felt like she was in a different world at Princeton. She probably would get the star treatment at her 25th, but what about her non-white classmates? Would many feel alienated from the whole experience as they did during their undergraduate years?

    • Jerry Park

      Great question John, and I wondered some of that myself when I was around the campus. A glance at the parade clearly showed the progression from an all-white mostly male alumni to one that was more diversified through the 1990s onward. How integrated they felt probably depends on a variety of factors which some intrepid scholar should explore.