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.
OUR TIP: If you’re concerned that the term alumni sounds a bit formal, you can establish the group as a “friends of” group instead.
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:
- Build its profile – by broadening the circle of people who know about your school and its achievements;
- Build affinity – by helping people to keep in touch and feel a sense of belonging to your community;
- Raise money – by tapping into a new source of potential donations and bequests;
- Gain support – by finding new volunteers, new people to provide in-kind support, etc.;
- Broaden its contact base – not just with local people and businesses but with people now living and working outside the local community, who may be a good source of sponsorships, partnerships, etc.;
- Increase its audience – providing a new ear for information about reunions, fetes, special events, etc.;
- Provide a link back to your local community – this is particularly the case with rural and remote communities whose youth are often forced to leave the community for further education or employment. You can help these people stay in touch and feel a part of your community.
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:
- Start locally: Send a note home with your current students asking their families to help out in the search for former students, staff and supporters of the school (they may well be former students themselves). Ask them to pass the information on to their family and friends, and for them to spread the news as well.
- Make it a special project: Take your alumni project on as a significant school activity and launch it as an ongoing campaign. Send a media release to your local papers and community radio/TV stations saying you’re looking for alumni and telling them how people can get in touch. If you can’t get a full news story in, try the “what’s on” columns. Have two bites of the cherry by providing an updated story a month or two later saying how successful the campaign has been, and giving some anecdotes about where people have ended up and what they’re doing (ask their permission first).
- Place an ad: If the free news article strategy fails, put an ad in the paper saying you’re looking for former students and direct them to your website or phone number.
- Spread the word: Post information about your campaign on relevant websites, and on community and online notice boards. (Again, this can be a student project to make the signs and find the right websites.)
- Get online: Put information about the campaign up on your website – with a link from every page on your site. Provide a way for people to add and update their information online (through a device like Formstack, for example). Provide a downloadable form and an email and postal addresses for people who prefer to do things that way. Make sure someone checks the address every day and acknowledges receipt of the information.
- Get plastered: Put a reminder about the campaign on everything you send out – in your weekly newsletter that goes home to parents, in your annual report, in your regular newspaper columns, on your email signature, on your school letterhead, etc.
- Google: If you want to make a concerted effort to find specific people – if you’re organising a reunion for a particular year level, for example – dig the names out of your old records and do a Google search to see what comes up (another student project?). Surprisingly few people can escape a search engine these days.
- Hold events: Hold special events to draw people back into the community. Some schools, for example, hold a reunion for a different year level every year.
- Piggyback: Hook into other local events – the monthly market, the Anzac Day picnic, etc. Put in place an information desk with sign-up forms.
- Member-get-member: Target a few people from each year level/form/class and ask them to try to find out where others are and what they are doing. Ask them to pass on information about the campaign.
- Keep it going: Ask families/students/staff if they will consent to being entered into the database as they leave the school; this is an easy way to ensure your list continues to grow.
- Use what's already there: Check out some of the “virtual” school communities that have sprung up on the web – chances are your school is already listed and people have already started signing up. Check for Facebook and LinkedIn groups, or search for a specific group on Google.
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 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:
- Ensuring your database is “alive”, with information and contact details updated regularly. If you are sending out emails you need to monitor bounce backs to work out why the email address is not working. You need to chase up bounce backs every time, not just once a year. Once the trail has gone cold, it can be hard to find people again.
- Reminding people (via your newsletters, your email signature, etc.) from time to time about the alumni list and encouraging them to update their details.
- Giving people a reason to want to stay on the list by engaging them in the community.
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:
- Acting as a school contact for people wanting to find out about the alumni community and register or change their details.
- Monitoring incoming emails, including replying to queries, acknowledging receipt of new entries and chasing up bounce-backs.
- Developing strategies to find new alumni.