22 Jul 2020

High Turnout and Ratings for Virtual Spring Reunions


Nearly 2,400 Harvard Business School (HBS) alumni came together for the first ever HBS virtual reunion on June 6. Alumni five to 20 years out and 50+ years out are invited to the spring reunions, which this year occurred as a Zoom version of the traditional in-person gatherings.

Reunions are the very centerpiece of alumni engagement at HBS, usually bringing thousands of alumni and their families back to campus for two days of faculty sessions, section gatherings, and social events. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on travel and large gatherings, External Relations created a virtual one-day Spring Reunion. The School also hosts a One-Year Reunion for the previous year’s graduating class earlier in the spring, which this year was held virtually as well, with 564 members of the MBA Class of 2019 gathering with fellow classmates on Zoom in May.

“While this wasn’t how any of us would have imagined coming together for reunions, coming together was exactly what we needed to do. The virtual Spring Reunions were a success because of our alumni—the volunteers who came together to plan in partnership with External Relations, and to their classmates who came together to learn, share their experiences, and deepen their connections with each other and the School in these difficult times. We saw the strength of this community as they turned to each other for connection and compassion in the face of unprecedented challenges,” said Janet Cahill (AMP189), executive director of HBS External Relations.

As a typical reunion requires 12-18 months of planning, switching to a virtual gathering meant many confirmed details required unraveling and reimagining. Pivoting quickly to revise and rethink how the keynote sessions could translate into virtual programming, Alumni Relations polled alumni, consulted with faculty and IT, and settled on a single day of programming featuring morning plenary sessions and afternoon class and section convenings.

“We usually see well over 3,000 alumni back on campus, with about 1,000 of their children, who now have their own programming,” said Susan Gold, managing director of alumni relations. “Spring Reunion is always a very big event—reunions are foundational to our alumni’s sense of convening and reconnecting with their classes and sections, and their efforts to support the School philanthropically.”

Dean Nohria opened the virtual reunion by welcoming alumni, and was joined by Professor Raffaella Sadun, who discussed Italy’s plans for reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, and Professors Sam Hansen and Adi Sunderam, who conversed about the Federal Reserve’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The morning’s keynote presentation, “Secrets to Happiness: Fear, Love, and Positivity in the Time of COVID-19,” featured Senior Fellow Arthur Brooks and Professor Len Schlesinger leading alumni through the methodology and a sample of their new popular Elective Curriculum class, Leadership and Happiness, adapted to address the current pandemic.

Alumni were also able to delve deeper and more personally into the findings and issues raised by Brooks and Schlesinger when they later broke into smaller discussion groups. Afternoon sessions were devoted to smaller class and section gatherings, which included intimate discussions, guest speakers, moderated panels, faculty, and several memorial services.

Classes overwhelmingly reported feeling closer and more connected with their classmates through the virtual experience. Not only were they able to hear from each and every section mate, but they also did not have to contend with travel or associated concerns. “It was wonderful to see, particularly in the older classes, the happy participation of alumni who for various reasons had long been unable to travel to campus,” said Beth Graves, associate director of reunions. “They reported feeling deeply engaged, and have been eager for more online convenings.”

Alumni volunteer partners were enthusiastic and diligent in creating a successful virtual gathering. “The alumni volunteers were deeply dedicated to making this happen for their classmates,” said Kathy Ashraf, associate director of alumni clubs and associations. “They put in so much time, and were committed to making it a really good experience for their classmates and section mates. They were determined, and they did it. It's as much credit to the alumni as to anyone.”

The External Relations team is thrilled with the results of a recent survey of the Reunion classes: across the board alumni reported that their expectations were met or exceeded. Among the more specific statistics: 94 percent of alumni felt that connecting with classmates was important and 85 percent reported that the experience met or exceeded their expectations for that connection.

In order to maintain theses classes’ engagement with each other and the School, alumni volunteer section leaders were given a six-month HBS Zoom license to build and sustain online class gatherings. And, the School is already planning for a fall virtual reunion in October. Fall Reunions are held for classes between 25 and 45 years out. The success of Spring Reunions has paved a clear path and pointed to a few areas for improvement. Fall alumni volunteers are already clamoring for their six-month Zoom licenses, and because of the overall benefits, alumni are asking if there can be virtual programming implemented in all reunions going forward.

Virtual reunions this year are happening among a broader series of virtual programming now being offered to alumni. In the very early weeks of remote learning and working, the External Relations team partnered with Executive Education to create a series of virtual programming for alumni. This was both to share the faculty’s timely thought leadership on the pandemic as well as to build a sense of community through a virtual space. Led by Professor Dutch Leonard, Crisis Management for Leaders featured HBS faculty in twice-daily sessions on such topics as coping with sudden cash needs and availability, structuring the organizational response, and recognizing and managing supply chain change. More than 9,700 alumni participated, indicating both an appetite for and comfort with virtual convening. External Relations has now scheduled virtual programming for alumni with HBS faculty and business leaders through the rest of the calendar year.

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