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Learning from Your Reunion

by Edith Wagner
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Finding Out What People Thought of the Reunion
Wondering how to learn what went right (and wrong) at the reunion? Let an expert tell you how gather constructive feedback on the big event.

Some reunion organizers rely on members to tell them how they felt about the reunion, to make suggestions and be willing to take some responsibility for keeping the reunion fresh or improving it. One Reunions magazine reader wrote that despite all the frustrations of organizing the reunion, she was unprepared for the adulation afterward — family members recognized what an enormous task she'd accomplished. Paulene Van Der Volgen organizes the Woodworth Family Reunion, and knows the children enjoy it because she gets notes from them.

How Can You Know What They Thought?

If you rely solely on members to tell you how they felt, you also take the risk of hearing nothing at the outcome after Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address: silence. What you can count on is that there will be talk about the reunion — you just need to ensure that they talk to you or other volunteers who agree to organize the next one.

It is important to know that everyone enjoyed themselves and if not, why not or what could make it happen. Use every opportunity to tell members of all ages that you are interested in their evaluation of the reunion. Include the invitation to evaluate in your opening announcements, during events and activities. Whether you do it spontaneously or formally. Encourage participation and suggestions to improve or keep it just as wonderful as it is (it's equally important to learn that status quo is good)!

Don't Be Afraid to Evaluate

Evaluation is not a hot topic but surely one that will help you look toward future reunions with more confidence and comfort in knowing that more people were consulted and their opinions incorporated into the success of your reunions. Assuming that each reunion is only one in a series makes evaluation essential to improve each one. Your willingness to honestly evaluate all aspects of your reunion can only add to the success of the next one. Evaluation need not be as formal as what is included in Reunions Workbook, because we wanted reunion groups to have a direction to involve every member's opinion in future planning.

When you present evaluations to your members, do so with "instructions for care and feeding." This is a reunion that belongs to everyone and while one person must be in charge and others help out, everyone should have a voice in how the reunion went and in what could be done to match or exceed it next time. The reunion, after all, is the product of the person or persons who organized it. The evaluation offers some ideas that, if regarded seriously, can make the reunion the product of many more people. Knowing that their opinions, comments, ideas, suggestions and, yes, criticisms will be taken seriously makes your members offer constructive responses.

While the adults and older kids can be asked to respond in writing, ask the youngest ones if they had fun and what they liked. From the latter you may find how easily satisfied they can be: swimming, laughing, running around — hanging out with their cousins. If you are sensitive to all that kids want and look forward to, you will make them happy and by association, members of all the other generations will be happy as well.

Tell your members that their input will help improve the next reunion and that you will take their responses seriously. Tell them this is their opportunity to make sure the next reunion will have everything they want and look forward to. This is also a good time to recruit help for the next reunion. Set out to learn from each reunion and you can only improve from reunion to reunion. Busy as you are during the reunion, you should also try to observe the event. Or ask members whom you can trust to be objective to be your eyes and ears. Try to get as much detail about what's happening as possible. You don't need to know everything during the reunion itself, just those things that must or can be changed on the spot. Everything else can wait until afterward at a debriefing or "post-mortem."

Of course, you must sort legitimate complaints from bellyaching. Most families have members who can be expected to find things wrong which may need to be regarded but with the usual grains of salt that allow you to realize that it may not be as bad as that person sees it. Surround yourself with positive thinkers and active doers who will make suggestions rather than simply telling you what did not go well. And concentrate on what went well. There is always more positive to say than negative but we all, by nature, seem to hear the negative louder, clearer and longer than the positive. Focus on all that's good, make notes and be sure to do those things again. Also focus on what's not so good to use as lessons and direction for future planning.

A common theme from persons who ask for suggestions to improve their reunions is that "we've always done it that way." Only some are willing to admit that maybe continuing to do it "that way" is what needs to be changed. Even in reunions there is a risk when trying something new or different. Start by deciding what you do and how much risk you're willing to take. If you decide to do a formal written evaluation, try to get evaluations done at the reunion while ideas and impressions are fresh and while your audience is captive. The information is on members' minds, at the tip of their tongues and immediate enough so less is forgotten. Insist upon comments that are both good and bad. If you don't, you may never learn. Getting evaluations done at the reunion also saves time and postage.

Consider asking committee members to participate in a separate evaluation since they have some insights and technical knowledge that others don't. Be straightforward with some objective questions. Ask if the date and location were good. Ask about cost (fees, dues, and/or assessments). Ask what delighted, what excited and, yes, what disappointed. Rank on a range of something like "exceeded my wildest expectations" to "awful" so that everyone has a chance to weigh in with their opinions. Among the things you'll want to rank are:

  • Accommodations
  • Activities
  • Entertainment
  • Food
  • Services
  • Souvenirs (t-shirts, directory, memory book)
  • Tours

What Do You Do with Evaluations?

Of course, we hope that all reunions are without error or fault, run smoothly without complaint and everyone is as happy as they can be. But you'll never learn unless you open yourself to additional ideas that evaluations generate. Before you even evaluate, you'll want to commit yourself to follow the consensus of the group. You'll want to be open-minded and prepared to accept criticism with praise and suggestions in the spirit in which they are intended. If your reunion was at a location that didn't seem right for some members or couldn't accommodate their needs, you should use that information to your advantage in searching for and finding a more appropriate venue next time.

Also, if there is an activity that many members are interested in you may need to consider that more seriously in the future. For example, perhaps neither you nor anyone in your immediate family plays golf, so proximity to a golf course might never have crossed your mind. In fact however, golf is on the agenda at almost 20% of all reunions so at some point you may at least need to consider it as important to some of your members. Or, like most of us, you may not be as sensitive to accessibility as you should be. Ask someone for help if you don't know what to do. And there's no better source for information about wheelchair accessibility than someone who uses one.

It may seem awfully formal to think about evaluation at an event that is supposed to be fun. But there are few ways to ask peoples' opinions where they realize that this might be helpful and they might be taken seriously. Be prepared to listen, learn and act.

Meetings at Family Reunions

Incorporated reunion groups are required to have an annual meeting, and time set aside at the reunion is the perfect solution. Families who have no requirement to meet still find many good reasons to. A family meeting serves many purposes. It can be at the opening of the reunion where introductions and announcements are made, "housekeeping" details, schedules and news about events, entertainment and tours are shared. Most family meetings include a treasurer's report or statement about the reunion's financial resources. Meetings are always a good time to pass the hat so everyone can help either defray cost of the current reunion or build a nest egg to begin the next one — money for postage and printing the first announcement or to pay for a newsletter.

Some meetings are used to acknowledge achievements and passages; to celebrate births, communions, confirmations, graduations, weddings, milestones and to acknowledge deaths. The list of furthest, oldest, youngest, largest, smallest can also be celebrated at a meeting.

Two of the most practical things that can be discussed and, more importantly, decided at a meeting are the date and the place of your next reunion. First because everyone is present, there can be discussion and lobbying. Then, everyone knows the when and where of the next gathering. If everyone is agreed at this point, you have just saved considerable time and postage by including this simple agenda item in your meeting. Many reunions make date and place decisions even more in advance than just the next reunion. If you schedule several reunions ahead, you can schedule reports of ideas and progress — which encourage attendance — at intervening reunions.

If the meeting comes toward the end of the reunion, you might also want to consider a "talk back" for an immediate response in lieu of a written evaluation. Be prepared with encouraging words to begin discussion. Ask direct questions that evoke spontaneous, sincere, honest responses. Avoid accusations. Encourage suggestions for change — or to keep the same. An evaluation at your meeting can be more like beginning the next reunion and can go a long way to acknowledging what will please and interest everyone. Use what you learn from your reunion members to program reunion success! Make it everybody's reunion.

After the Reunion

  • Document the Event. Dig out that same list of newspapers you sent news releases to before the reunion. Write a news story about the reunion, and be sure to list guests from out of town.
  • Evaluate and Plan for Next Time. Gather the committee while your feet still hurt. Talk about what went right and what went wrong. Take notes so that you will remember what was said. Most of all...have fun! Be enthusiastic, friendly, and welcoming...then start planning for next one!

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