Cambridge Society of Washington DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia: A CARO Case Study for Voluntary Alumni Organization Over the past few years the Cambridge Society of Washington DC ('Cantab DC') has embarked upon making our network an active and institutionally established alumni-run Society. Approximately five years ago, our Group had just been re-formed by a dedicated bunch of alumni, although membership/ involvement was low and several things bogged the Group down, including; uncertainty regarding alumni interest in our gatherings, a lack of an online presence, and a lack of seed funds with which to plan events and maintain our basic costs. Since then we have taken a number of steps to gauge our members’ interest, to incorporate the society as a legal and recognized nonprofit organization, and we have grown our membership list to over 2000 local alumni. More recently we have been holding a stream of engaging events that have grown the interest of newcomers to the DC area as well. We have found a number of elements have been crucial to our success along the way: Member Survey: When we first started increasing our presence, we had composed a voluntary member survey (using our mailing list and SurveyMonkey) in order to collect a representative profile on our member list including demographics (age, gender, single/married/kids), residence (DC, Maryland or Northern Virginia), Cambridge affiliations (College/degree program), occupation/income status; and we also asked about the types of events our members were interested in attending and the prices they would be willing to pay to attend such events. We were surprised about how many people responded and some of the information we received. This was very useful in planning future engagements. Making it Fun & Regular through Outreach and Social Media: In this effort to grow the Cambridge presence in DC, we then set out to establish traditions - both old and new - here in our American home. In so doing, we have put on a number of distinctive and fun events, such as the Cantab DC: Burns Night dinner with a specially procured Haggis from Louisiana; Guy Fawkes’ Night Dinner featuring an in-costume/ theatrical retrial of Guido Fawkes with some surprise twists; Holiday Party at the British Embassy; Garden Party celebrating the Queen’s Birthday; Evening with BBC Bureau Chief, Simon Wilson (Downing); Oxbridge Boat Race on the Potomac River.
We also gather for drinks on the First Thursday of every month at the same elegant/centrally located venue; this serves as the rock of our social calendar around which members can plan regular involvement/social activities1. Throughout all of this web-presence has been key! It acts as the initial platform off of which alumni find a Group and learn how they can become engaged. We have used a standing Membership Outreach and Call for Organizers page to expand both the scope of our events and our membership base. This has been very successful in increasing involvement and growing our group to a critical mass. Even more than this outreach has been the presence on social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Issuu.com. Be sure to take pictures at your events and post them on an open social media group online for people to see. Then when communicating to your members for the next event, post them and be sure to say explicitly that new members are welcome2. Expenses & Revenue: The founders of the Group had gone a long way in incorporating Cantab DC as a non-profit entity with a Bank account and a rather nice (but expensive) website (www.cantabdc.org) that also manages our member lists and the newsletters. However, we had no sustainable source of revenue and were relying on the charity of our Board Members to pay the fees of the website and our insurance. We did not want to charge membership fees to join because we felt that the fees might dissuade some people from participating, particularly the younger members. Therefore we have sought to finance our bills through a variety of revenue streams including; through ticketed dinners3, through donations, and most notably through Sponsorships. Thus we created some simple and easy to manage sponsorship services for The drinks have been easy to plan and sustain –even without continuous leadership– since it is in the same place at the same time every month. Having this no-hassle/enjoyable meeting is key for ensuring institutional stability as well. For volunteer alumni organizations there is a high burn out rate for board members and thus it takes continual engagement of the group to recruit new organizers and ensure continuity over several years. Group leaders should have succession planning in mind long before they want to transition out of their leadership role so that the organization does not suffer. 2 We use the following text: ‘If you are new in DC or this is your first time at a Cantab DC event, make sure to email email@example.com ahead of time and we'll see that you are greeted and introduced to folks on your arrival. Bring your friends and family - everyone with an alumni connection is welcome!’ After we put this line in our invites we got many more alumni coming out of the woodworks…apparently they had been shy. 3 We start ticket pricing ‘at cost’ and then raise the price of the ticket as it gets closer to the date of the event; we use PayPal for these transactions. Assuming alumni are interested in attending such an event they will consider signing up as early as possible, otherwise they will wait until the last minute to sign up (leaving the organizers sweating over the bill that they might have to foot!). 1
corporate sponsors to advertise on our website/newsletter. Now, I know many in Cambridge would gawk at this idea, but our American sensibilities thought nothing of it, especially as it meant we would no longer have to keep the Society afloat from our own wallets. It then took some outreach to target companies, including, British themed pubs and retailers, private grade/secondary schools, consulting companies, executive search firms, etc. We set our initial pricing strategy low and then eventually increased costs when we knew where the ceiling of demand was set, while allowing for some price discrimination and discounts. We used the results of the membership survey to create a Brochure (template available upon request) that helps us sell our services to the targeted sponsors. Then we have supplemented this with statistics on the web-traffic our website has received over the past year or so; we used Google Analytics to help track this. Now we have a steady stream of revenue that is not only able to pay for our website, but also pay for our insurance and to subsidize the attendance of younger members at ticketed events through our Social Scholarship scheme. We were even able to subsidize our Boat Club as it prepares for its race vs. Oxford on the Potomac (GDBO). Most importantly this revenue has also given us the seed capital to plan other higher-end ticketed events, while reducing the financial risk for the individual organizers. Eccentric Members: So the one thing I love about Cambridge is the amount of interesting people it claims as alumni. However, sometimes members can be a bit eccentric and as the saying goes, 'One bad apple ruins the bunch'! As was suggested in the CARO's "Alumni Volunteer Resources" manual, be sure to have a member exclusion article in your bylaws, but be sure to be fair and follow due process for this. Most importantly be sure to remain professional at all times! A published code of conduct for members will also lay down clear expectations on what is appropriate behavior. This can help avoid unnecessary conflicts.
Published on Jul 22, 2013