Start-Up Companies Help Colleges Use Social Networks to Connect With Alumni

Today’s alumni may not always take the time to update their alma maters when they move to a different city or get a new job, but they’re likely to keep their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles current.

That’s the premise behind several recently formed companies that are using the Internet, particularly social networking, to help colleges and universities reach out to their alumni.

“As you advance through your career, you’ll get promoted or switch jobs,” said Brent Grinna, chief executive officer of one such company, EverTrue. “Are you going to send an e-mail every time you get a promotion? That’s unrealistic. Because of that, many schools are sitting on databases that are highly inaccurate.”

Mr. Grinna started EverTrue after being given the job of running the fund-raising campaign for his fifth-year reunion at Brown University. He said he noticed that, even though just half a decade had passed since his peers graduated, they were increasingly difficult to keep track of. A brainstorming session with a classmate who had just been hired at LinkedIn led to EverTrue’s inspiration.

“We thought, ‘Imagine something that has the data schools have on graduates but also can harness the massive amount of data on the social graph,’” Mr. Grinna said. The social graph is a web of data—such as interests, relationships, and job information—that users create by engaging in social media. Facebook, for example, often knows where someone went to college, who his or her friends are, and which of those friends were classmates.

EverTrue, which this month received $5.25-million from Bain Capital Ventures, has created an app that uses connections made through LinkedIn to let alumni find one another based on factors such as major and location. Mr. Grinna compared it to Yelp, the restaurant-review Web site, saying it makes networking as easy as finding a good restaurant.

Daniel Cohen, founder of Graduway, another start-up company intending to connect alumni, said networking opportunities were as important to many students as earning a degree.

“Students are very fickle about where they’re going,” Mr. Cohen said. “They want to get a return on their investments. They are investing a lot in an education, and as part of that education they want access to an amazing alumni network.”

Graduway works with colleges and universities to layer their brands over existing social networks. This month the company entered into a strategic relationship with LinkedIn. But simply connecting alumni to one another and to their universities is not enough, Mr. Cohen said. By creating Web pages and mobile apps with the university’s branding, the company hopes to attract alumni who actively want to help one another and give back to their colleges.

“We’ve started to unravel how you get that network to be more active,” Mr. Cohen said. “Our whole product is aimed at empowering that network to help one another. My credo is, ‘It’s not just who you know, but how willing they are to help.’”

And today’s alumni are very willing to give back, argued Jamie McDonald, chief executive officer of GiveCorps, a company that just started a fund-raising platform for alumni.

According to the 2012 Millennial Impact Report, 75 percent of respondents to a recent survey, all ages 20 to 35, said they give money to nonprofit organizations. The amounts are often not large (usually $100 or less), but the survey results suggest that members of the so-called millennial generation are active givers nonetheless, and 70 percent of their donations are made online.

Ms. McDonald said universities are behind the curve, with only 1.5 percent of higher-education donations’ being solicited online. Many universities already use social media for fund raising, according to an annual survey released this month by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. In the survey, 47 percent of college respondents said they use social media to raise money from donors, but 67 percent of the respondents have raised only $10,000 or less through that method.

Ms. McDonald said her company’s new platform, called GiveCorps.Pro, allows universities to reach more of those younger online donors by using the Internet to make donating a social experience. For instance, colleges might build fund-raising events around holidays or run competitions, such as pitting alumni from different dormitories against one another.

“This generation is an incredibly generous, passionate demographic,” Ms. McDonald said. “They are such a natural audience for giving. There’s so many natural ways to take the old concept of annual fund raising and personalize it so that a young person can make sure their $25 gift is going to matter. You can really sort of bring it home for them.”

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