Community Building IRL: What Online Networks Can Learn from Century-Old Alumni Groups

I’ve been an alumna of Northwestern University since the day that I set foot on campus.

That’s what they tell us all at our freshman year orientation. From that day forward, we are granted access to the resources and the people within the alumni community in perpetuity. And while this is something that’s hard to wrap your head around as an 18-year-old who’s just trying to find the dining halls for the first time, in the end, it sticks with you.

Today, the Northwestern University alumni network is composed of more than 230,000 living alumni. As part of this group, I have had the privilege to connect with hundreds of these individuals in cities all over the U.S. and abroad at sporting events, career development workshops, and one-to-one connections. Since graduating, I have never missed a homecoming, I own more purple dresses than I care to admit, and I currently have exactly 676 sent email exchanges containing the phrase “Go ‘Cats.” (Yes, this is also a byproduct of spending four years in the marching band.)

But here’s the crazy part. Even though I’ve been out of school for nearly a decade, on average, I still spend between 2–8 hours a week coordinating Northwestern-related activities, events, and introductions in my free time. You’re probably asking: “Why on Earth would I do such a thing?”

This fall, Northwestern University hosted a fundraising event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC as part of their giving campaign, We Will. Witness: The ferocious Wildcat Growl.

Incentivizing participation in communities

Since graduation, I can directly credit two jobs, one roommate, and multiple interns (not to mention one husband) to Northwestern alumni connections. So I don’t look at my volunteer service as paying back the school for what they provided me in college and instead as paying forward the access, exposure, and assistance I received from others as an alum.

Since 2013, I have been volunteering for other NU alumni with the hope that I can provide opportunities or some helpful advice to the most recent cohort of new graduates. Today, I’m the NYC Regional Director of the Alumni Board of Directors. In this role, I collaborate with the Presidents of all of the local alumni chapters and help with things not dissimilar from what a startup board member might do — offer advice on club activities, help with board recruiting and succession planning, and leverage relationships with the broader university.

It doesn’t escape me how similar this role is to what I do in my day job every day at Union Square Ventures. As General Manager of the Union Square Ventures portfolio network, it’s my job to encourage employees across 70+ portfolio companies to lean on each other and cross-pollinate knowledge about building successful businesses. Through our lens as investors in technology companies, we also have the unique privilege of observing online user behaviors among millions of participants of digital communities every single day.

In today’s tech sector, we tend to think about community building in terms of influencer marketing and engagement metrics. But the idea of “network effects” — services that increase in value to each user as others participate — is not unique to digital communities. Even in the case of Northwestern University, people had been deriving value from spending time together since the early days.

And whether networks exist offline or online, I’ve noticed that each community shares many of similar questions:

  • Who is part of this network and how do we communicate with them?
  • How do we get people to show up?
  • Why might somebody want to get involved?
  • How can we engage people who are geographically distributed?
  • Where do we find the right information and resources?
  • How do we measure the impact of these interactions?

But one question has always fascinated me more than any of the others:

“How do you motivate people to willingly give up their time and participate to make a network better?”

Understanding what drives community engagement

To learn more about what first prompted Northwestern alumni to begin meeting up, I called upon Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard. He theorized that, at least initially, the graduates of the (at the time, all-Methodist) university likely stayed connected to “further the social, cultural, and political causes that many, most, or nearly all alumni of the time could have been expected to support.” In other words — they wanted to continue to appreciate their shared experience and promote the value of a brand with which they felt close ties.

The evening before the 8th graduating class of Northwestern University students featured the first ever public “meeting of the association of alumni,” a group estimated to be fewer than 40 individuals. (Images and source courtesy of Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard, also viewable here on
NU Alumni News, September, 1964 (Images and source courtesy of Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard.)

Initially, alumni activities were self-organized and engagement was organic. By Northwestern’s 8th commencement ceremony in 1866, a time when just under 40 living alumni could claim the title, the “meeting of the association of alumni” had already become a precedent. But it would be years before Northwestern formally incorporated the alumni association (NAA) in 1881. By 1964, the university figured out that they could further incentivize alumni engagement with an annual “Leadership Symposium” to thank and show support for their alumni volunteers.

In other words, what began as a relatively decentralized and organic movement ultimately became formalized by the university as a way to promote increased volunteer time (and ultimately financial gifts).

Digitizing community-building

Today’s highly active and governing body of the NAA is the result of 150+ years of tinkering and slow iterations to this model. Unfortunately tech companies don’t have the advantage of a century’s worth of shared experiences to shape community loyalty and cultivate a precedent of volunteerism. Online user communities also don’t always have the luxury of unifying behind one collective, shared experience.

The reason why I decide to study a set of flashcards on Quizlet (to learn all the names of a lot of tech companies) may be very different from somebody else’s reason (to memorize pre-flight airplane safety commands), which is different from the reason Quizlet was created in the first place (to help founder Andrew Sutherland study French).

On Quizlet, more than 30 million learners practice more than 200 million study sets on topics from every subject area. Via

This diversification of utility in a single platform can be incredibly powerful. But it also means that online businesses have to work a little bit harder to understand why users are showing up and what they hope to get out of participation. (Often through exhaustive A/B test, user surveys, and measuring Net Promoter Scores.)

In the case of Stack Overflow, the largest Q&A site for developers, co-founder and CEO Joel Spolsky has explained how the site’s initial need stemmed from mass frustration that developers had toward another service: Experts Exchange. In fact, people were so annoyed with the paywall of this other site that they voluntarily ask and answer questions on Stack Overflow, adding to the canonical source of programming knowledge around the world.

They created an online incentive structure to rewards users with reputation points and badges for their participation. The result? Millions of individuals voluntarily contribute questions and answers, bolstering the site’s utility for everyone — not to mention a 600% increase in traffic since 2010. Today, their top user, Jon Skeet, has committed more than 34,000 answers to this platform, impacting a combined total of more than 226 million people.

Some online communities, like Etsy, have found their niche by straddling both online and offline communities — engaging online artists and consumers from all over the world, while still maintaining that high-touch, in-person presence at local craft fairs. Meetup is perhaps the most conspicuous of this category, whose entire platform is based around the idea of providing digital enablement tools to better facilitate real world interactions. At any given point, a quick visit to their about page will show just how many people are meeting up in real life right now.

On Meetup, you can browse more than 3,700 groups in a five-mile radius of New York City.

Just like Stack Overflow incentivizes user behavior to contribute to their platform’s content online, other online networks have begun to transform their online users into offline champions. Clue, a period-tracking tool that’s among the fastest-growing women’s health mobile apps, cultivates and nurtures global ambassador program of some of their top influencers who spread the word about women’s health online and offline. Figure 1, an app for sharing and discussing medical cases with other professionals, drives grassroots engagement on medical college campus by way of their student ambassador program. Some online communities generate so much demand for in-person interactions that Code Climate, MongoDB, and Twilio organize annual conferences for their users to meet and learn from each other. Today’s Twilio’s Signal Conference attracts more than 2,500 attendees, and MongoDB manages a Slack channel with more than 1,000 users.

What can alumni networks or other in-person communities learn from these examples? And how can communities exist both online and offline simultaneously?

Deciphering user engagement

If there’s one thing to be learned from observing all of this community-building, it’s that the most successful networks have built-in incentive structures in place. In online communities, sometimes participants can accrue a trackable token, like reputation points on Stack Overflow or the “coins” that you Foursquare’s Swarm app rewards you for checking in to new locations around the world. Sometimes, incentives may be monetary. For instance, musicians using Splice can sell samples or “splices” of their music for other users to incorporate into their compositions. In the case of Northwestern University, you could decide, for instance, to track how many alumni get jobs as the result of another alumni connection.

But it’s not always this simple. We’ve found that motivation and incentive-structures can be built upon both emotional and rational explanations. To explore what motivates other Northwestern University alumni, I asked some of my friends why they give back as an alum. Here’s what they said:

  • Because I want to stay connected
  • Because I want to extend the “college feeling”
  • Because my friends are there
  • Because I want to be associated with this brand
  • Because I want to help others in their career
  • Because being on campus feels like home
  • Because I want to keep learning
  • Because it helps me elevate my status
  • Because it’s my community

You can’t attach a dollar value to some of these sentiments. It’s simply a shared experience and a sense of belonging.

Sharing a similar experience can be an incredibly motivating driver for cultivating community, and it’s what makes our in-person network work at Union Square Ventures as well. In the case of our USV network, all of the employees across our portfolio network also share a similar experience — working for a venture-backed, fast-growing technology company.

As it turns out, there’s a lot of stress that goes into company-building, and we’ve learned that providing a place to talk it out can be really helpful. Each year, we now facilitate more than 150 events just for employees who work at companies in our portfolio network.

At Union Square Ventures, we facilitate or host more than 150 events a year for employees across our portfolio companies to meet with each other and share best practices about building businesses.

But what’s interesting is that year after year, we receive the same requests for events. HR leaders still want to vent about performance reviews, product leaders want to swap productivity tips, marketers want to talk about the challenges of appeasing so many stakeholders internally. Sometimes the best events we host are ones that simply show people that they are not alone, that the struggles of others mirror back the ones they see in themselves.

Even though older organizations such as the Northwestern University literally have more than a century’s worth of community-building experiences, making the shift from the physical world to the digital one is not always easy. In 2014, Northwestern launched a fully comprehensive online social media ecosystem — a “Facebook for Northwestern alums.” The platform offered messaging capabilities, lists of upcoming regional events, and a university-specific news feed. But it didn’t quite take off like the purple wildfire they had all hoped for.

Why not? Consider this. If I were to create an exact duplicate copy of Facebook today, with the same functionality, interface, and capabilities, it would be worthless if I were not also able to migrate the billion-person user community along with it. If we have learned anything from digital ecosystems, it’s that online scaffolding is only as powerful as the defensibility of its underlying network. The very elements that make this physical community so powerful are the hard-to-scale bits that make the translation to digital even trickier. In Northwestern’s case, there was something missing from their digital experience, something that didn’t quite “click” the same way as an in-person interaction.

How can you replicate these emotional feelings online?

Add a dash of humanity

I often feel like I’m simultaneously straddling the old vs. the new, tugged back and forth between these two worlds every day. On one hand, I’m fighting to preserve the honor and the history of a century-old alumni network. On the other, I’m actively promoting the rapid-fire acceleration of a new era of digital community-building. One group is trying to move online engagement offline; the other experiments with moving online users to offline advocates.

But at the center of both of these disparate worlds is one indisputable similarity: The uniqueness of the human touch behind each of them. At the end of the day, despite the data collection and the tinkering of the product and the incentive systems, these networks need a touch of humanity to make them feel real. It may be fun to watch an Amazon Alexa talk to a Google Home, but at least for now, an all-bot network doesn’t seem to fill in all of the delicate pieces of belonging we crave from being part of a community.

It’s likely that there is something each world can learn from each other as they slowly converge. Maybe physical communities like university alumni networks will migrate toward a “subscription-based” model of donations that mirrors how consumer apps lock in users. Maybe digital networks make a stronger effort to cultivate experiential touchstones for their users to enhance loyalty and reduce user attrition. But one thing is certain: networks today are more important than ever, and the ones that figure out the right formula for cultivating strong communities will be the networks that continue to thrive for the next 150 years.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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