University At Buffalo's Oral History Project

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Cynthia Khoo-Robinson (UatBuffalo)'s team shares how the development of an alumni directory to celebrate the university’s 175th anniversary blossomed into an oral history project that not only generated an incredible quantity of alumni stories, but also garnered an impressive volume of alumni contact information.

By Kristen Murphy, Senior Director, Alumni Engagement and Cynthia Khoo-Robinson, Associate Vice President of Alumni Engagement & Annual Giving, University at Buffalo

In 2021, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of the University at Buffalo. The UB Alumni Association (UBAA) recognizes UB’s impact on more than 280,000 alumni and marked this historic year by partnering with PCI to create a publication to honor 175 years of the UB campus experience. 

In collaboration with Donor and Alumni Communications and Advancement Services, we launched the project in January 2021 with outbound marketing (post cards, emails and phone calls) to all alumni. Story and data collection continued until June 2021 and final participation totals are as follows: More than 23,000 alumni responded with over 15,000 stories collected, over 3,000 alumni placed orders for the book and almost 2,000 alumni made an optional donation totaling over $50,000. From July to October, we will work closely with PCI to create the commemorative book which will print in November and be distributed in December. 

While we are pleased with the participation and sales results of this project, our greatest benefit is the biographical information that was verified, updated or added to our database as well as the stories collected. The updated data has been added to our database and in January 2022 we will have full access to the story archives. The stories are searchable by key word and include both the audio recording and transcription. We will leverage these stories for general marketing purposes as well as in support of our Advancement efforts. We are also having discussions with University Archives to ensure these stories are cataloged and available for use in various projects. 

It is important to share that this alumni engagement effort is not only about the finished product – the book – it is also about the incredible biographical information that was collected directly from more than 23,000 alumni. Below is a chart of the summary of alumni data that was verified, updated or added.

Alumni data that was verified, updated or added

Lessons Learned

While we would fully support this project again, there are some lessons learned:


  • Leverage all communications channels to talk about the project. Provide opportunities for alumni to OPT out.
  • Develop a FAQ page and include it in ALL communications that are deployed.
  • The customer is always right applies here – see customer service note below. 
  • Develop a post-marketing plan for those who purchased the book. The timeline for the average buyer is extremely long (someone could participate in a call in February and not get the book until December). Stay in touch – leverage this project as an opportunity to continue to engage with participants along the way. 


  • This is a LONG project and spans about 16-18 months in total. Deploy staff accordingly.
  • Prepare for A LOT of customer service. Have a point-person and a few back-ups. Develop a tool box with protocols, talking points, sample emails, etc. 
  • Proactively communicate all aspects of the project to gift officers, front-line alumni officers, call center employees, etc. Any forward-facing staff will hear from donors, prospects and highly engaged alumni. Provide access to the customer service toolbox noted above. 
  • Beyond Advancement – notify university communications, the President’s office and other relevant stakeholders about the project. 
  • If you are including a donation option with the purchase, work closely with your annual giving office on protocols and to develop stewardship language to incorporate in the post-marketing communication. Encourage the development of a specific stewardship plan for this audience.

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