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Building an Alumni

THE TAKEAWAY: Most people identify strongly with the school they attended in their youth (and that's not just private schools). Setting up an alumni scheme can help you tap into that goodwill.

Identifying and engaging with your school’s alumni community is an extremely important step in increasing your supporter base and building a successful school fundraising strategy.

All schools stand to benefit from this largely untapped and highly valuable resource.

Who are your alumni?

Think broadly about who might constitute your “alumni”. Don’t just include past students. Reach out to staff – teaching and non-teaching – and anyone who has at some time been associated with your school.

That can mean other schools in the area, the local business operator who served on your school council for a few years or who donates to your annual raffle, the retiree who came to the school once a week to help out with reading classes, the printer who gave you a cut-price on the cost of your annual report, and so on.

Why keep in touch?

Many universities and a smaller number of schools have been aware for years of the huge benefits that can be derived from an identified and engaged alumni community. However the vast majority of schools have ignored this extremely valuable resource.

Reconnecting and engaging with your alumni community can allow your school to:

Getting started

Establishing an alumni community is a significant undertaking and will involve some work and ongoing commitment. But the good news is that most of the hard work occurs at the start – once your database is up and running maintenance need not take up a huge amount of time.

You might even be able to minimise the work for staff by turning it into a student project (in fact, many aspects of the setting up and maintenance of the database can be done by students), or by signing up a former staff member to help drive the project.

Finding your alumni

Once you have a database in place, it’s time populate it. It might be a good idea to hold a brainstorming session to think of some ways you can find the people who have moved on from the school. Your strategies should include most of the following:

What to ask for

You need to think in advance about the sort of information you want from people joining your alumni community. It’s too late to discover you should have asked for a phone number after all your emails have bounced back. At a minimum you need to ask for:

  • Name
  • Name when you were at school
  • A primary email address (this is even more important than a postal address as many email addresses are mobile)
  • A (daytime) landline and mobile phone number (a mobile phone number will allow you to contact someone after they have moved jobs or houses).
  • For primary schools, it might be better to ask for “family contact details”, rather than individual ones, which tend to be less stable when people are young.

You might also want to ask for:

  • A postal address
  • A secondary email address (many people have two – one for work and another for personal or longer-term contacts)
  • (Optional) information about what they have been doing since they finished school, or finished their association with your school
  • (Optional) anecdotes or memories of their experiences with the school. (You can prompt memories with questions such as “Do you remember your first day of school?” or “Who was your most memorable teacher and why?”)

These last two points helps to build connections – and can also provide great fodder for newsletter articles (but ask permission first).

Check privacy and spam legislation relevant to your state to see if there are laws that could impact on your strategy for signing people up and your plans for communicating with your new-found alumni. You should always stipulate that contact and personal details will not be shared without permission – and abide by this policy to the letter.

How to maintain the database

The biggest danger in establishing a database is to enter the names and then clap your hands and think you’re finished.

Establishing an alumni community is an ongoing process – you will want to add more and more names as time goes by (you can’t expect to get to everyone at once), and you have to work to keep the ones you already have. You can do this by:

Who’s the boss?

It's of utmost importance that responsibilities for your database are clearly assigned.

You need to appoint someone (preferably someone with authority) as the “Alumni Coordinator” – not necessarily to do all the work but to ensure the work is done.

This task is often best carried out by an ex-staff member (perhaps a retiree?) or an ex-student – someone with more time on their hands than current staff, a good knowledge of and attachment to the school, as well as good community connections.

You also need to assign staff and/or students responsibility for: