Can you afford to be out of touch with your alumni?

Natalie Trice has been looking at how independent schools are keeping in touch with pupils, long after they have flown the educational nest

We all know that at the heart of any thriving school are current pupils, but those from the past are just as much a part of the community too. While the students you teach today are a captive audience, the ones who have left might be living all over the world, leading busy lives and developing their careers, which means they can be harder to reach but they are just as important. 

Given the constant bombardment of information in our 24/7 digital age, connecting with members of an alumni takes hard work, creativity and innovation, but the benefits of cutting through the noise can be huge and is an opportunity many believe is too good to miss out on. 

“The first thing to realise is that alumni relations are a long-term game,” said Phil Rothwell, Director of Development at Warwick Independent Schools Foundation. “It is about cultivating a lifelong relationship with former pupils, who will then, in time, give back by offering their own advice and career support, perhaps by sending their own children to the school, and by making donations of varying levels. The best way to cultivate a sense of loyalty is to begin before pupils even leave the school because if they understand and appreciate the benefits of former students helping them, they are more likely to do the same further down the line.”

As well as the real-time and financial support, the other obvious benefit of this network is the power of advocacy which is priceless when it comes to attracting the next generation of pupils.

Jane Paul, Director of External Relations at Giggleswick School, commented: “Our Old Giggleswickians (OGs) and former parents are some of our greatest advocates and most prized word-of-mouth adverts. Nothing tells you the quality of a school more effectively than seeing the achievements, characteristics, personalities and values of those who were educated there and we recruit a large number of pupils through OG recommendation. For us, though, the benefits go further because our OGs also provide invaluable support to our current pupils, providing lectures to sixth formers, work experience and mentoring and every year, our OGs support our Higher Education and Careers Week, helping pupils with their CVs and interview skills.” 

Ben Evans, Headmaster at Edge Grove School, agrees that former pupils are excellent ambassadors, spreading good PR and acting as an important marketing tool. “Happy, successful former pupils at school events will reassure current parents that they have made a good school choice and boost their confidence in the school’s added value for their child/children,” he added.

Phoebe Lebrecht

Having alumni members talk at open days and play at concerts is fantastic and can really change the dynamic of an event, but this is only going to happen if you are engaging with them on a regular basis and making them feel like an integral part of school life. 

Yes, you are busy, but so are they and if they feel prioritised and valued, they are more likely to ‘give back’ to their old school and make a difference to pupils who are studying with you now.

An invaluable tool

Alumni members bring a wealth of experience and skills to the table, and Ben Evans knows you need to be proactive if you want to tap into their potential. 

He said: “Having a database of successful and accomplished alumni can be invaluable for pupil workshops, masterclasses and enrichment lectures. At EG, we also invite former pupils back to speak at Speech Day which is always very well-received by parents and demonstrates that the school community exists long after pupils have actually left the school.”

So far it is easy to see how this set up can benefit a school, but what is in it for members?   

Phil Rothwell thinks that increasingly, alumni see value in the school network with it being a more vibrant and exciting version of the ‘old school tie’ system and one which is no longer just open to men. He commented: “Young alumni are keen to develop their careers in an increasingly competitive environment. It is a great resource for them to tap into the knowledge of other former pupils in their school network who are willing to help them with advice and guidance. When alumni see the benefits of staying in touch with their school and each other, they are then more likely to help others when they are in a position of influence. It’s a virtuous circle.”

Annual magazines, newsletters, social media posts, apps, website updates and invitations to events can help ensure your alumni feel involved in school. Golf days, lunches and dinners, as well as football, netball and cricket matches get people together so they catch up with old friends, and teachers, and find out how their old school is evolving and what role they can play in the future. 

Ben Evans

For Christine Hare, Head of Marketing at Bellerbys, creating networks that help pupils to keep in touch with friends and teachers well beyond the end of their studies is important. 

She said: “We provide regular updates on current student performance and changes at the colleges, and we also work to organise reunion events in the UK and in our alumnus’ home countries. At our Brighton College, we host an annual event for students to reconnect with each other and teaching staff. Students regularly come back to our colleges with family members to show them where they studied, to catch up with teachers, and to just say hi. On one occasion, we even had a couple who met at Bellerbys come back for a marriage proposal and our catering staff organised a special lunch reception.”

While the 60,000 alumni members of the United World Colleges (UWC) have access to the UWC Hub web platform and mobile app which allows them to keep in touch with one another, human interaction is still a very strong element of keeping people connected. Jill Longson (below), UWC Atlantic College Graduate and Governor, acknowledges that the human touch is important: “Face-to-face contact is irreplaceable, so as well as organising annual reunion events, we host other gatherings around the world, where alumni can come together to share experiences, knowledge and ideas.” 

Once a Giggleswickian…

At Giggleswick even the youngest pupils are aware of the OG Club, which they automatically join when they leave, and the regard in which former pupils are held, and as the motto goes ‘once a Giggleswickian, always a Giggleswickian’. As well as having an appointed Alumni Officer, the school holds annual events and sporting fixtures against the current first teams, and members can get married in the beautiful chapel that was such a part of their formative years, if they so wish.

With one past pupil taking a seat on the Board of Governors each year, this school really does seem to know how to foster loyalty and belonging with members of their alumni. Disney set designer Tom Coxon is the latest to take up the post and said: “Being a young governor I can give something back to a school which gave me a strong platform and allowed me to explore who I am as a person through both academic and extra-curricular activities. The ethos and enthusiasm of Giggleswick helped me believe that I could achieve more than I thought I could.”

As well as inspiring current students to be the very best they can, because Tom graduated in architecture he also offers valuable input into an ongoing project to redevelop and upgrade the school’s boarding houses, which shows just how key the early investment in alumni is and the benefits it can offer everyone.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating relationships with former pupils, Phil Rothwell summarised: “Schools don’t have to invest thousands of pounds in developing a bespoke programme for their alumni. A simple, effective thing to do to start with is to acknowledge former pupils on the school website, and provide a point of contact for people to get in touch. If a school starts there, it can’t go too far wrong.”