Penn State Calls on Grads to Enlarge Alumni Association

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The Penn State Alumni Association increased membership 4.2 percent in its last fiscal year after it began a marketing effort featuring three telemarketing campaigns and a more than twofold rise in total solicitations.

In the association's 2003-04 fiscal year, which ended June 30, membership grew from 146,619 to 152,721, its biggest gain in nearly a decade. The surge above 150,000 came just in time for the university's 150th anniversary.

Annual memberships are $35 for individuals. Life membership, in which members pay an upfront registration fee rather than annually, is $600 for individuals. Discounts are available for recent graduates and senior citizens.

The association's campaign also increased life memberships 4.3 percent, from 76,648 to 79,994. Total membership penetration of all addressable Penn State graduates climbed from 33.6 percent to 34.3 percent.

In its 2003-04 fiscal year, the association embarked on the first year of a three-year campaign, "For the Future: Campaign for Membership Growth." It exceeded its goal of a 5,000-member increase in the first year by more than 20 percent.

The association made 2 1/2 times the number of solicitations it had made the previous year. It hired a telemarketing firm to conduct campaigns, an effort that yielded a 5 percent response rate. It also began a program with another outside contractor in which Penn State graduates who bought alumni directories were enrolled in the association, bringing in 1,912 new members. The campaign also featured print solicitations and booths at Penn State football games.

"We were much more aggressive," said Roger L. Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association. "We were trying to sweep out the far corners of the alumni universe."

Planning for the campaign began last summer, with more than half the staff meeting regularly to brainstorm, Williams said.

"There's nothing easy or automatic about membership growth," he said. "You have to work hard and be smart about it."

The association last experienced growth of this magnitude in its 1994-95 fiscal year, when membership rose by 9,443, or 7.7 percent, to 132,062. That year, the group ran a campaign dubbed "Pride of the Lions," with a goal of surpassing 125,000 members for the association's 125th anniversary.

Retention is the aim of this year's marketing, Williams said. The current retention rate for annual members is 79 percent, which means it has to gain 11,000 new members yearly just to stay even. Williams said he hopes to boost retention to 90 percent.

Another goal is to retain more recent graduates. The association offers new graduates free one-year memberships, but the retention rate for these alumni after the free trial ends is only 24 percent.

To improve that figure, the association is building relationships with potential members before they graduate, Williams said. Students can register in its Blue & White Society for $15. The society has 3,000 members, a number Williams hopes to see reach 10,000.

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