Reunion Gifts Drive Week Of Partying

Inside Harvard University, there is a corporation within a corporation--nameless yet not faceless, a big spender yet exceedingly profitable.

That corporation, though not an independent legal entity, is staffed by a few full-time employees in places like the Yard's Wadsworth House, the Class Report Office on Winthrop Street and Radcliffe's Fay House. These are people who work long hours year-round for the good of one glorious week in early June.

The primary job for these employees is important if small: organize reunions each year for roughly 5,000 Harvard graduates, family members and significant others.

The reunion organizers--longtime Harvard employees like Marion Briefer, Diane Jellis, Anne McCoubrey and Rosemary Resnik--say they have only one goal: putting on a great party.

But the University which pays their salaries and heavily subsidizes three "major" reunions--the 25th, the 35th and the 50th--has different motives. For Harvard, the reunions are an investment with an annual profitability that surpasses anything that can be made on Wall Street.

Harvard's subsidy to the 25th reunion, according to Briefer, is about $1 million a year. The gift donated this year by the Harvard class of 1968 will approach $6 million, according to reunion gift co-chair David H. "Zack" Taylor '68.


The way this money is raised is symbolic of how Harvard runs its reunions. Personal relationships and longstanding agreements dictate everything about the reunions from the site of outings to who sets up the chairs.

In the case of fundraising, reunion gift chairs for each class rely heavily on their personal knowledge and acquaintances to raise a donation for Harvard. These chairs study their friends' and classmates' finances and giving histories in order to identify the deepest pockets. They then find the friends of those deep pockets, and have those friends do the soliciting. It's a system that works.

Richard B. Boardman, executive director of the Harvard College Fund, says the fund will receive upwards of $42.5 million in donations this year.

Much of the donated money is tied to the reunions, either as part of a gift offered by a reunion class or as a result of the good feeling engendered by the annual get-togethers. And that good feeling flows so freely that Boardman expects more than half of all alumni to contribute to Harvard this year.

Professionals like Briefer and Jellis spend the money and work out the details of the party, but the reunions' "profits" are made by alumni themselves, who volunteer to hold dinners, make phone calls and stroke egos to raise big bucks for the College.

The corporation within a corporation is a serious business.

The Class of 1958 is famous for many things, among them Eric Segal's novel, The Class, which, its author insists, is purely fictional.

The novelist's protagonist, however, is a fundraiser for the class's Harvard reunion. That is somehow fitting in a class that is remarkably good at raising money.

Fundraisers use a formula to construct a multimillion dollar gift like the 35th reunion donation the whole class will make to the Harvard College Fund this year. First, the reunion gift chairs actively solicit two or three gifts of $1 million or more, which often requires cross-country travel to stroke and cajole prospective donors. With those gifts in hand, fundraisers nationwide go after donations in the $10,000 to $100,000 range. Other fundraisers, whose focus is participation, launch phone drives to pick up minor contributors.

The Class of '58 has this drill down pat. It figures to bring in a gift of between 5.25 and 5.5 million dollars, with 80 percent of the class participating. The class of '57, in contrast, raised about $4 million for its 35th reunion gift, with a roughly 70 percent participation rate.