Penn graduates have been involved in its affairs since the institution's earliest years, although in the Colonial and Federal periods alumni activity was more a matter of individual initiative than organized effort.
In 1835, feeling the need for a formal association, a group of alumni representing the classes from 1765 through 1834 gathered in the University chapel. They adopted a constitution, elected officers, named an alumni orator, and did everything else necessary to establish an alumni organization. And then they did not meet again for 13 years.
The alumni finally reorganized in 1848, establishing the Society of the Alumni of the College, a permanent association that today exists as the College Alumni Society. In the wake of this new society came other formally organized groups of alumni, most of which still function, although many have taken different forms. In 1881, for example, the Central Committee of Alumni was established and given the privilege of nominating candidates for the University's board of trustees. Eventually, this procedure grew into the practice of alumni-elected trustees.
In 1884, a group of alumni formed and incorporated the University of Pennsylvania Athletic Association, which for nearly 50 years had oversight of varsity athletic teams and facilities, including the construction of Franklin Field, the Palestra and the River Fields. When athletics passed to University control in 1931, the move was based on the "Gates Plan", which was prepared by an alumni committee headed by graduates Gordon Hardwick and Michael Derizas.
As the University gained wider stature, alumni activity became nationwide. The first regional club, the New York Society of the Alumni, was founded in 1886 at a dinner at Delmonico's Restaurant in Manhattan. Other regional clubs followed, first in Chicago, then Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
In 1887 the alumni classes, which had been active for many generations, formalized their organizations and established the practice of holding reunions on the same day as part of the University's Commencement activities. It was the start of Alumni Weekend.
In 1894 the various types of alumni organizations - the clubs, the class, and the school societies, then known as departmental societies - joined together in a federation they named the General Alumni Society, which was recently renamed the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Society. Nearly 20 years later the General Alumni Society absorbed the Central Committee of the Alumni and established a permanent office with a full-time executive secretary.
Until the 1920s, the General Alumni Society and its constituent organizations supported themselves, choosing to remain independent of University control and financial support. During the 1960s, recognizing that a dues-structured program could not sustain the level of alumni activity and communication needed by a modern, increasingly global University, The General Alumni Society discontinued dues and the University agreed to underwrite the organization's programs and publications. The General Alumni Society office became a budgeted University department known as Alumni Relations and Society employees became University staff members. The Society's executive secretary took on the new title and responsibilities of director of Alumni Relations.
Although financing the alumni program has become a University matter, the Society has retained its autonomy, continuing to elect its own officers and to select alumni trustees.