Volume 77 | Issue 1
January 2009

Who's on your guest list? Building a database to connect with student leader alumni

Julie Mayhew

 We all know it. Often the most meaningful experiences alumni had during their college years came from their campus life not from the classroom or even their major field of study. The chemistry major may have graduated and become a successful scientist, but her heart will always belong to the à cappella choir. The government relations major may have mastered political theory, but it was his position on the union board that gave him the practical experience he needed to launch his career.

When asking alumni to support and give back to the university, it’s good to appeal to what made their college experience meaningful. Most alumni databases track college major and minor fields of study, but not all databases have a good handle on tracking affinity based on the activities, clubs, and organizations that were part of students’ campus experience. If that information is not in the database, finding it can be a daunting task.

With a 50-year anniversary approaching, the University of Utah Union anniversary planning committee found itself staring down a database of some 350,000 records with more than 180,000 living alumni. While it could be assumed that many of these alumni had had some contact with the union during their college years, the ones the committee members wanted to reconnect with and invite back to the anniversary events were those who had had meaningful experiences at the union.

Drafting the guest list

Initially, committee members examined the data to identify those alums who might be interested in hearing about the anniversary events. Some promising groups of student leaders were already coded in the database under student activities: the school newspaper, the school yearbook staff, student government, and several sororities and fraternities. However, in trying to retrieve lists from the database, it became apparent that information had not been consistently input; some searches yielded several hundred names, while others returned only a handful or no names in a 50-year range. For this project’s specifications, the university’s records were at best sporadic and at worst out of date and inconsistent.

Also problematic, there were no codes for the Union Board or Union Programming Council. The committee members concluded they simply could not find the needed names from the existing donor/alumni database alone; rather, it would take detective work not easily automated.
The committee’s primary target was students who had been on the Union Board or the Union Programming Council at some point during the past 50 years. A secondary target was any group or individual who had met or worked in the union. The plan was to first find names and then use the help of the university development and alumni offices to locate current addresses.

Upon contacting the campus development office for suggestions, committee members found that other departments had recently requested similar assistance in finding their student activities alumni. Most notably, the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics had hundreds of organized files going back decades that listed scores of student interns from each year who had worked in state government and in Washington, D.C. Working with the development office, the Hinkley staff set up a coding system and enlisted students to input the codes into the database.

This was an appropriate model for the union staff to replicate. But at only 10 months out from the anniversary event, they would need to work quickly. Students went through Union Board meeting minutes from the past 50 years and simply made spreadsheets of the names of those in attendance. They finished this task fairly quickly and then moved on to searching through old yearbooks. From the yearbooks, they gleaned names of student body officers, yearbook staff, and other groups who had been housed in the union. With the student office reception staff working on the project during lulls in their regular duties, this step of the project was finished in just over four weeks.
Simultaneously, professional staff used campus e-mail blasts and notices placed in various alumni group publications calling for “your fondest union memory.” Respondents were directed to the union website to share their stories and could opt to be added to the anniversary event mailing list. The names and addresses collected online were input into the spreadsheets.

Once duplicate listings had been removed from all the spreadsheets, the names were then sent to the Alumni Association, which had offered help in cross-referencing the information with that in its database. Searching for former names and probable graduation dates, they were able to find a surprising number of alumni with current addresses in the database. New codes were created for the groups the union committee members had found and added to already existing records, along with the new names and addresses collected online. This took an additional three weeks to complete.

Cordially invited

Using the newly input codes an initial mailing list was created. Everyone on this list received a “save the date” notice with a list of “missing alumni” to notify union staff about any known contact information. This proved a successful approach as several alumni shared the names and addresses of friends with whom they had stayed in touch.

After a few more months of concentrated “treasure hunting” and data input, committee members had located more than 500 names and addresses of “union alumni.” These new names, combined with those from the existing database, resulted in a fairly targeted invitation list for the anniversary events. Just over 2,500 were invited to the main event—a gala dinner—with an attendance goal of 250–300 people. The dinner attracted 448 guests spanning the decades from the 1950s to current students, with a cross-generational mix who were happy to mix and mingle. Dinner guests included alumni from student government, the school newspaper, Union Board and Union Programming Council, and the yearbook.

A rededication ceremony the day before the gala dinner, featuring the opening of a time capsule from 1957, hosted several alumni who were thrilled to be back participating in the event. These included the editor and business manager from the 1957 yearbook, a former student who had cut the original dedication ribbon in 1957, the former student who had made the ribbon for the 1957 occasion, and the son, daughter, and sister of the 1957 Union Board president (now deceased).

Digging back through 50 years of buried information to build a database is a good start in targeting those most likely to care about the union. The next step is to stay in touch, add to the list, and keep it current. Gala dinner attendees received thank-you letters after the event. And because the newly coded mailing list could be segmented to identify Union Board and Union Programming Council alumni who did not attend, that group received a “sorry we missed you” letter with a dinner program and favor enclosed.

The union now has clean contact information for more than 600 student leader alumni, so these individuals have begun receiving the union’s annual reports and newsletters. Such regular communication with them will help keep track of addresses for future communications and solicitation mailings.

Growing the list

Based on the anniversary committee’s efforts, the project has continued long after the celebration ended. The committee and staff are now able to send out regular mailings, and staff members are working with the development office to find alumni e-mail addresses. Next steps include growing the list as more missing pockets of information are discovered in various archives.

It’s easier to keep track of an address than it is to find a lost one. Recent graduates tend to be more transient, and if communication lapses, forwarding addresses may have expired, leaving university staff with a dead end. As a result of this collaborative project, the affinity codes have been created to track union alumni. Now, it is just a matter of sharing that information with the Development Services Department to assign those codes annually to recent graduates. Currently, the University of Utah loads graduate data only once a year, but there is discussion about doing it each semester and even loading them in prior to graduation allowing for contact with current seniors before they graduate.

The University of Utah also is working to build a web community for its alumni. Such online web communities are beneficial for staying in touch and keeping contact information current, as alumni can go there to update their contact information. The benefit of an online portal is that updated information received from alumni/donors is accurate, up to date, and keeps track of elusive and ever changing e-mail addresses. While some campuses might opt to host their web communities using an outside vendor, it is important to ensure the databases are somehow connected or integrated. A strategic plan is needed to be sure a system is in place to allow university and vendor databases to “talk” to each other.

Every campus likely has hidden records and files that could be similarly mined and entered into a database. Find the old alumni and establish a system for coding them. Get current students into the system immediately after they graduate or, even better, before they leave—it’s a much easier job than finding them after years of neglect. It’s not rocket science, and it’s time well spent. Once that information is captured, it is easy to identify alumni for regular communication and funding appeals. For the University of Utah, committee members definitely felt it was worth the effort to find and reconnect with their union alumni.